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Sun, 11 Dec 2016
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


Parts of brain regions cycle in and out of sleep, even when you're awake

© Elena Kallis
When we're in a deep sleep, our brain's activity ebbs and flows in big, obvious waves. New research from Stanford has found that those same cycles exist when we're awake as well, with tiny portions of the brain independently falling asleep and waking back up all the time.

According to the study, published December 1, 2016 in Science, when neurons in the brain cycle into the more active, or on state, they are better at responding to the world. Neurons, specialized cells that conduct electrical impulses, are the basic data processing units, the 'chips', of the brain.

The team used special super-sensitive probes that could record activity from a column of neurons in the brain. In the past, people had known that individual neurons go through phases of being more or less active, but with this probe the researchers saw for the first time that all the neurons in a given column cycled together between firing very rapidly then firing at a much slower rate, similar to coordinated cycles in sleep.

Kwabena Boahen is a professor of bioengineering and electrical engineering at Stanford and a senior author on the paper. Boahen said:
During an on state the neurons all start firing rapidly. Then all of a sudden they just switch to a low firing rate. This on and off switching is happening all the time, as if the neurons are flipping a coin to decide if they are going to be on or off.
Those cycles - which happen in seconds or fractions of seconds - weren't as visible in the awake brain because the wave doesn't propagate much beyond that column of neurons, unlike during sleep when the wave spreads across almost the entire brain and is easy to detect.

Eye 1

Illusion reveals that the brain fills in peripheral vision

© Association for Psychological Science
What we see in the periphery, just outside the direct focus of the eye, may sometimes be a visual illusion, according to new findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The findings suggest that even though our peripheral vision is less accurate and detailed than what we see in the center of the visual field, we may not notice a qualitative difference because our visual processing system actually fills in some of what we "see" in the periphery.

"Our findings show that, under the right circumstances, a large part of the periphery may become a visual illusion," says psychology researcher Marte Otten from the University of Amsterdam, lead author on the new research.

"This effect seems to hold for many basic visual features, indicating that this 'filling in' is a general, and fundamental, perceptual mechanism."

As we go about daily life, we generally operate under the assumption that our perception of the world directly and accurately represents the outside world. But visual illusions of various kinds show us that this isn't always the case. As the brain processes incoming information about an external stimulus, we come to learn, it creates a representation of the outside world that can diverge from reality in noticeable ways.

Otten and colleagues wondered whether this same process might explain why we usually feel as though our peripheral vision is detailed and robust when it isn't.

"Perhaps our brain fills in what we see when the physical stimulus is not rich enough," she explains. "The brain represents peripheral vision with less detail, and these representations degrade faster than central vision. Therefore, we expected that peripheral vision should be very susceptible to illusory visual experiences, for many stimuli and large parts of the visual field."

Book 2

Move over Freud: Literary fiction is the best therapy

© Allstar/Propoganda Films
Books and bonds … Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in the 1996 film adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady.
One of my maxims as a university teacher of literature was: "A great novel not only enhances our understanding - more crucially it understands us." When I later trained as a psychoanalyst I annoyed my tutors with my refrain that one could learn more about the subtleties of human psychology from literature than from the works of Freud, Adler or Jung. This was not to decry the pioneering wisdoms of those great psychologists, but years of teaching literature convinced me that fiction trumps theory in its illumination of the hidden recesses of our consciousness.

There is now good evidence for the therapeutic effects of reading. The Shared Reading project, organised by the Reader Organisation, suggests that reading in groups - in their case they bring together groups of people with mental health issues for example, but the findings apply as well to the local book club's monthly gathering with added wine - significantly "improves self-confidence and self-esteem, builds social networks, widens horizons and gives people a sense of belonging, preserving the mental and physical health of those who are well and building mental resilience".

Chronic loneliness and isolation are now prevailing social problems, but it is not necessary to be part of a group reading project for a book to have a role in ameliorating this social malaise. As the shrewd and alienated Holden Caulfield says in JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it." I think many of us can count some books as close friends (my particular friends are Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady and Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot). And it is by no means a trivial good that, at a fundamental level, reading confers a benefit by entertaining us. To "entertain" means to "admit, cherish, receive as a guest" and books can, and do, dissolve social isolation, as the estranged and damaged Caulfield exemplifies, by inviting in the reader to become involved in an imaginal world. Immersion in a fictional society seems to promote many of the rewards of immersion in actual society: among other benefits, it encourages escape from the self, by no means always escapist. To get outside the confines of our individual egos is a liberating experience, and entry into another universe, by way of the written word, may be a safer, or more practically possible, route for some - for the elderly, the incarcerated or the emotionally fragile, for instance - than by personal physical encounter. Among the Shared Reading successes is its work in psychiatric hospitals and prisons.

Comment: See also:


This is your brain on God: Spiritual experiences activate brain reward circuits

© Jeffrey Anderson
An fMRI scan shows regions of the brain that become active when devoutly religious study participants have a spiritual experience, including a reward center in the brain, the nucleus accumbens.
Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music, report researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine. The findings will be published Nov. 29 in the journal Social Neuroscience.

"We're just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent," says senior author and neuroradiologist Jeff Anderson. "In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia."

Specifically, the investigators set out to determine which brain networks are involved in representing spiritual feelings in one group, devout Mormons, by creating an environment that triggered participants to "feel the Spirit." Identifying this feeling of peace and closeness with God in oneself and others is a critically important part of Mormons' lives -- they make decisions based on these feelings; treat them as confirmation of doctrinal principles; and view them as a primary means of communication with the divine.

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Community groups keep us mentally sharp as we age

© unknown
Being part of a social network might help us keep our brains in top gear.
According to a large, longitudinal study, being part of a community group could help prevent the cognitive decline associated with age. The current findings add further evidence that social engagement is good for the mind.

Earlier research has hinted that having a strong social network, integrating socially, and engaging with others is associated with better cognitive outcomes.

Similarly, community opportunities - such as recreational, social, and leisure activities and voluntary and group work - are all linked with higher levels of well-being and lower mental stress.

These types of so-called social capital opportunities also reduce overall stress, isolation, and loneliness.

Being involved in civic groups - such as neighborhood watch, environmental groups, voluntary service groups, and other community-based groups - seems to be a healthful option.

Comment: Related articles:

Light Sabers

From 'fascists' to 'feminazis': How both sides of politics are biased in their political thinking

© Shutterstock
Individuals from both sides of politics will refuse to accept evidence that contradicts their beliefs.
Any frequent user of social media is probably aware of the tendency for both sides of politics to view the other as fundamentally immoral and ignorant.

Interestingly, longitudinal data suggests that political polarisation is intensifying, at least in the United States, with the recent US election seeing partisanship reach an all-time high.

One important contributor to this phenomenon is confirmation bias: the tendency to seek or interpret evidence as supporting our pre-existing beliefs, regardless of whether it really does.

There is also research showing that confirmation bias is particularly active when the evidence at hand threatens the validity of our political worldview.

Comment: See also:

Brick Wall

Avoiding spiritual struggles and existential questions is linked with poorer mental health

© unknown

Fear of confronting the tensions and conflicts brought on by existential concerns -- the "big questions" of life -- is linked with poorer mental health, including higher levels of depression, anxiety and difficulty regulating emotions, according to a new Case Western Reserve University study.

"Religious and spiritual struggles -- conflicts with God or religious people, tough questions about faith, morality, and the meaning of life -- these are often taboo topics, and the temptation to push them away is strong," said Julie Exline, professor of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve and co-author of the research.

"When people avoid these struggles, anxiety and depression tend to be more intense than if they faced these struggles head-on."

People who more fully embrace these struggles with fundamental beliefs and values report better mental health than those who don't, Exline added.

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Picking up your mental garbage

Many people are concerned about the increasing pollution, violence and suffering. We want to help, but many times we feel that we are powerless against these trends. However, there is an universal law that you should take into account before trying to help: You should clean up your mental garbage. The largest manufacturer of junk in our lives is our own Minds, so first of all we need to know clean it up and to recognize its functioning.

In order to control something, we first need to know the thing concerned, so we must know our Mind so as to be in charge of it. The most important thing we need to about our Mind is that it is not something that exists separately, individually, like some inanimate object.

The Mind is not an object - it is a process. The process of constantly streaming thoughts. This stream of the thoughts is what we perceive as the Mind. When these thoughts disappear, the Mind disappears with them, as the two are only able to exist together. The very basic nature of thoughts is that they are in a constant move, and this motion, almost automatically, creates the Mind.


The downside of 'empathy': Blindly feeling others' feelings distorts reasoning, makes us biased, tribal, and even cruel

Everywhere you turn in American politics, leaders talk about the need for empathy. The best-known instance, of course, comes from Bill Clinton, who told an AIDS activist in 1992, "I feel your pain." But it's also been a recurrent theme in the career of Barack Obama, who declared in 2007 (while still a senator) that "the biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit."

And it isn't just a liberal reflex. A few months ago, George W. Bush spoke at a memorial service in Dallas for five slain police officers and said, "At our best, we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others." As a candidate, even Donald Trump asked Americans to identify with the suffering of others, from displaced Rust Belt factory workers to the victims of crime by undocumented immigrants.

Though there are obvious ideological differences over who deserves our empathy, it is one of the rare political sentiments that still command a wide consensus. And that's a shame, because when it comes to guiding our decisions, empathy is a moral train wreck. It makes the world worse. When we have the good sense to set it aside, we are better people and make better policy.

Comment: Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski differentiates between automatic, reflexive "syntony" (feeling something in common with others), and conscious, reflective empathy. As Bloom demonstrates above, the first is fickle, unreliable, and can lead to contradictory results. It also leads to a kind of 'mob' mentality in groups. But the second has all the advantages of the first, without the drawbacks:
We observe more alterocentric ['other'-centered], unselfish attitudes expressed by readiness to help; we observe more consistent sensitivity towards the needs of others forsaking primitive selfishness. This attitude is characterized by more or less strong participation of thoughtfulness and reflection. This is empathy. ... Typical examples are: a tendency to defend others, a heart‑warming attitude, understanding, and the like, which are accompanied by reflection and critical evaluation. (Dabrowski, 1970, Mental Growth Through Positive Disintegration)

Magic Wand

Mindfulness tips to reduce anxiety

Have you ever had your heart race, palms become sweaty, or have difficulty focusing because you're so nervous? These are some of the signs of anxiety.

Anxiety can be debilitating for some people, and for others it might just amount to a few minutes of feeling nervous.

Unfortunately, for some people when anxiety does hit, it can cause you to freeze and be unable to focus, respond, or engage in everyday tasks. For most people, anxiety is the result of thinking about something out of your control, or of something in the future.

Jon Kabat-Zinn PhD, is the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). According to Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is "paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment."