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Sat, 25 May 2019
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


How to daydream your way to better learning and concentration

© Kniel Synnatzschke/plainpicture

Daydreaming need not be the enemy of focus. Learn to do it right and you could reap the benefits from more successful revision to more motivation

Your exams start in less than a month. Or there's that make-or-break meeting next week that you need to prepare for. But no matter how hard you try to focus, you just can't. The clock is ticking, but the sun is shining and, oh, is that a barbecue you can smell?

If losing concentration sometimes feels inevitable, that's because it is - your brain is hardwired to give in to distractions and take you away with the fairies. To make matters worse, science has long backed up the idea that a wandering mind is the enemy of productivity. Failing to focus has been linked to lack of success, unhappiness, stress and poor relationships. It's enough to make you give up and head for the beach you were just daydreaming about.

But don't. Recently, psychologists have been having a rethink. If we spend so much time in a state of reverie, they reason, it's probably not some psychological mistake. It turns out that there are several kinds of mind-wandering, and they don't all make you unhappy or unproductive. A wandering mind could even be a key weapon in your cognitive arsenal - if you know how to use it.

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Different meditation types train distinct parts of your brain

couples meditation
© Tom Merton/Getty
Better done in company.
We are used to hearing that meditation is good for the brain, but now it seems that not just any kind of meditation will do. Just like physical exercise, the kind of improvements you get depends on exactly how you train - and most of us are doing it all wrong.

That the brain changes physically when we learn a new skill, like juggling or playing a musical instrument, has been known for over a decade. Previous studies had suggested that meditation does something similar for parts of the brain involved in focused attention.

Two new studies published in Science Advances suggest that certain kinds of meditation can change social and emotional circuitry, too. The research comes out of the ReSource Project at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and looked at the effects of three different meditation techniques on the brains and bodies of more than 300 volunteers over 9 months.

Comment: There is so little known about the practice of meditation from a scientific point of view, but what seems to be known for sure is that it is beneficial in many different, and often surprising ways.

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What happens when you spend a year using science to improve your brain?

brain graphic
© Illustration by James Bareham / The Verge

How plastic is the brain?

Here are two things that are both true. Neuroplasticity is real - that is, the brain really can change and learn and improve based on experience. And there's little evidence that brain-training games are any better than placebo.

"So," wondered science journalist Caroline Williams, "if brain training isn't the way to apply it, what should we be doing?" Williams is the author of My Plastic Brain: One Woman's Yearlong Journey to Discover if Science Can Improve Her Mind. She picked areas in which she wanted to improve - everything from attention to anxiety to creativity to navigation - and spent a year trying new techniques to see how much she would really pick up.

Comment: The idea behind training one's brain is certainly valuable, but much of what is on offer in the commercial marketplace is little more than hype. If you really want to 'train your brain', whether it be to improve intelligence, be more creative, have greater attention or be less emotionally reactive, chances are you're not going to get this from a phone app or computer software. Exercise, meditation, targeted learning (like language learning), better nutrition - these are the things that science is uncovering to be truly helpful in improving brain performance, not gimmicky 'brain games'.

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Humans have an inbuilt compass

Built-in Compass
Compasses are very useful, but, researchers suggest, the best one might reside somewhere in your brain.
The Earth's magnetic field is faint, yet creatures from birds and bees to lobsters and bacteria have been shown to detect its dull pull. Now, after half a century of looking, scientists have reported the most convincing evidence yet to suggest humans, too, share this ability.

The mysteries surrounding magnetoreception, as it is called, abound. It makes sense for globetrotting migratory birds and turtles to have an in-built compass, but it is far less obvious why cows might need one to orient their bodies along the magnetic field lines when grazing, or dogs to point north or south when defecating.

The first inklings that humans might have an internal compass came from studies by Robin Baker at the University of Manchester in the UK. In 1980, he reported that if he blindfolded students and transported them out of town, they could almost always point towards the quadrant of their starting point, but they lost this ability if a bar magnet was strapped to their heads. Subsequent attempts to replicate the findings failed, however.

Biophysicist Joe Kirschvink, then at Princeton University in the US, is one person whose replication experiments fizzled in the 1980s. But three decades later, and now at the California Institute of Technology, he and colleagues came up with a better way of testing whether humans have an internal compass.

Instead of asking his subjects for a conscious, behavioural response to changes in magnetic field, he decided to ask their brains directly.

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Incidental negative emotions can reduce our capacity to trust others

traffic jam guy
© istock.com/tommaso79
Incidental emotions, caused for instance by a traffic jam, influence the way we interact with others and specifically how much we trust others.
That emotions can influence the way we interact with others is well known - just think of how easily an argument with a loved one can get heated. But what about when these emotions are triggered by events that have nothing to do with the person we are interacting with, for instance the annoyance caused by a traffic jam or a parking fine. Researchers call these types of emotions "incidental", because they were triggered by events that are unrelated to our currently ongoing social interactions. It has been shown that incidental emotions frequently occur in our day-to-day interactions with others, although we might not be fully aware of them.

Negative emotions suppress trust

For the study, UvA neuroeconomist Jan Engelmann teamed up with UZH neuroeconomists Ernst Fehr, Christian Ruff and Friederike Meyer. The team investigated whether incidental aversive affect can influence trust behavior and the brain networks relevant for supporting social cognition. To induce a prolonged state of negative affect, the team used the well-established threat-of-shock method, in which participants are threatened with (but only sometimes given) an unpleasant electrical shock. This threat has been shown to reliably induce anticipatory anxiety. Within this emotional context, participants were then asked to play a trust game, which involved decisions about how much money they wished to invest in a stranger (with the stranger having the possibility to repay in kind, or keep all the invested money to themselves). The researchers found that participants indeed trusted significantly less when they were anxious about receiving a shock, even though the threat had nothing to do with their decision to trust.

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Mothers are drowning in stress

mother child stress
© Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Mothers are caught between ideals of devotion to work and devotion to children.
It's 2019 and American women have been in the workforce for decades, but a new report shows that their careers still get stuck on impossible ideals of work and home. As a result, they are drowning of stress that no woman can solve on her own.

Sociologist Caitlyn Collins spent five years studying parenthood in four wealthy western countries for Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, and she's found that U.S. moms have it the worst.

"Across the countries where I conducted interviews, one desire remained constant among mothers. Women wanted to feel that they were able to combine paid employment and child-rearing in a way that seemed equitable and didn't disadvantage them at home or at work." (8)

Comment: Much of the conflict here seems to be coming from those who tell women what they should want. The fact that motherhood has been devalued, while any woman worth her salt should be able to compete with the men in their chosen field, has done a serious amount of damage to the female psyche. Overall, it seems women would be better off if they chose, as individuals, whether it was more important to them to have a stellar career or a family, rather than believing the myth that they can 'have it all', without any consequences.

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SOTT Logo Radio

The Truth Perspective: The Hidden Role of Psi in Psychotherapy - and Evolution?

psychotherapy patient
© PhotoAlto/Alamy Stock Photo
Dr. Jim Carpenter's First Sight theory not only finds a role for psi in the creation of consciousness; it has a wide range of implications for what it means to be human, the nature of personal development, and potentially the development of life itself. With its focus on the importance of meaning, it has particular relevance to the practice of psychotherapy.

Today on the Truth Perspective we discuss a chapter in Carpenter's book on the subject, as well as a talk he gave in which he expands on the ideas presented there. Carpenter compares his theory with the Control/Mastery theory of psychotherapy, in which conscious and unconscious motivations play a central role. Last week we asked how to bring unconscious and conscious intentions into alignment. Carpenter's discussion of pathogenic beliefs and the role of the therapist in correcting them provides an answer: on an unconscious level, patients wish to have their unconscious pathogenic beliefs disproven. And psi can play a role in helping that process along.

Running Time: 01:23:45

Download: MP3 - 76.7 MB


How Inuit parents teach kids to control their anger

© Jean Briggs Collection / American Philosophical Society
Myna Ishulutak (upper right, in blue jacket) lived a seminomadic life as a child. Above: photos of the girl and her family in the hunting camp of Qipisa during the summer of 1974.
Back in the 1960s, a Harvard graduate student made a landmark discovery about the nature of human anger.

At age 34, Jean Briggs traveled above the Arctic Circle and lived out on the tundra for 17 months. There were no roads, no heating systems, no grocery stores. Winter temperatures could easily dip below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Briggs persuaded an Inuit family to "adopt" her and "try to keep her alive," as the anthropologist wrote in 1970.

At the time, many Inuit families lived similar to the way their ancestors had for thousands of years. They built igloos in the winter and tents in the summer. "And we ate only what the animals provided, such as fish, seal and caribou," says Myna Ishulutak, a film producer and language teacher who lived a similar lifestyle as a young girl.


Study: Memories of music cannot be lost to Alzheimer's and dementia

brain regions

The part of your brain responsible for ASMR catalogs music, and appears to be a stronghold against Alzheimer's and dementia.

Some music inspires you to move your feet, some inspires you to get out there and change the world. In any case, and to move hurriedly on to the point of this article, it's fair to say that music moves people in special ways.

If you're especially into a piece of music, your brain does something called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), which feels to you like a tingling in your brain or scalp. It's nature's own little "buzz", a natural reward, that is described by some as a "head orgasm". Some even think that it explains why people go to church, for example, "feeling the Lord move through you", but that's another article for another time.

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Neurofeedback - keeping you in the zone

Neuro feedback study 1

Study participants navigated a virtual plane up and down through a course of red boxes while we recorded their electrical brain activity from an electroencephalography (EEG) cap (see top panel). The participants became more and more agitated as the course also became more and more difficult over time which led most participants to miss one of the boxes (i.e. crashed the plane) in the middle of the course (see Control, bottom panel). When we provided a brain-computer interface (BCI) based neurofeedback signal that reflected their level of stress or arousal, participants were able to decrease their arousal level, which in term improved their task performance.
Our state of arousal - being fearful, agitated, or calm - can significantly affect our ability to make optimal decisions, judgments, and actions in real-world dynamic environments. Imagine, for instance, walking across a balance beam. Your performance - speed across the beam and the odds of making it across without falling off - are dramatically better if the beam sits a mere six inches off the ground and you are relaxed rather than terror-stricken on a beam 60 feet higher. To keep you in the zone of maximum performance, your arousal needs to be at moderate levels, not so high that it pushes you over the edge.

Biomedical engineers at Columbia Engineering have shown - for the first time - that they can use online neurofeedback to modify an individual's arousal state to improve performance in a demanding sensory motor task, such as flying a plane or driving in suboptimal conditions. The researchers used a brain computer interface (BCI) to monitor, through electroencephalography (EEG) in real time, the arousal states of the study participants when they were engaged in a virtual reality aerial navigation task. The system generated a neurofeedback signal that helped participants to decrease their arousal in particularly difficult flight situations, which in turn improved participants' performance. The study was published today by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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