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Sat, 25 Sep 2021
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Science of the Spirit


Brief diversions vastly improve focus, researchers find

© Jason Lindseay (jasonlindsey.com)
A new study suggests taking brief mental breaks improves performance on a prolonged task.
A new study in the journal Cognition overturns a decades-old theory about the nature of attention and demonstrates that even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one's ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.

The study zeroes in on a phenomenon known to anyone who's ever had trouble doing the same task for a long time: After a while, you begin to lose your focus and your performance on the task declines.

Some researchers believe that this "vigilance decrement," as they describe it, is the result of a drop in one's "attentional resources," said University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, who led the new study. "For 40 or 50 years, most papers published on the vigilance decrement treated attention as a limited resource that would get used up over time, and I believe that to be wrong. You start performing poorly on a task because you've stopped paying attention to it," he said. "But you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem."

Lleras had noticed that a similar phenomenon occurs in sensory perception: The brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. For example, most people are not aware of the sensation of clothing touching their skin. The body becomes "habituated" to the feeling and the stimulus no longer registers in any meaningful way in the brain.


Study: Popular kids -- but not the most popular -- more likely to torment peers

© Unknown
Popularity increases aggression except for those at top of social hierarchy

While experts often view aggressive behavior as a maladjusted reaction typical of social outcasts, a new study in the February issue of the American Sociological Review finds that it's actually popular adolescents - but not the most popular ones - who are particularly likely to torment their peers.

"Our findings underscore the argument that - for the most part - attaining and maintaining a high social status likely involves some level of antagonistic behavior," said Robert Faris, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis.

The study, which Faris co-authored with sociology professor Diane Felmlee, his UC-Davis colleague, also finds that those students in the top 2% of the school social hierarchy - along with those at the bottom - are the least aggressive.

"The fact that they both have reduced levels of aggression is true, but it can be attributed to quite different things," Faris said. "The ones at the bottom don't have the social power or as much capacity to be aggressive whereas the ones at the top have all that power, but don't need to use it."

Students' popularity was determined by how central they were in their school's web of friendships, and the authors define aggression as behavior directed toward harming or causing pain to another. It can be physical (e.g., hitting, shoving, or kicking), verbal (e.g., name-calling or threats), or indirect (e.g., spreading rumors or ostracism).

Better Earth

Brain gain: Mindfulness therapy puts the focus on improving the quality of body and spirit

Quick quiz. Which leaves you feeling more content?

A. Checking items off your mental to-do list.

B. Watching soap suds swirl down the drain as you wash the dishes.

Correct answer: B.

Despite the fact that we spend nearly half our waking hours thinking about something other than what we're doing, we're actually happier when we focus on what's happening in the moment. The way we direct our brains can help us manage pain, as well. And new findings suggest that spending time in a focused state may even increase gray matter, boosting areas of the brain involved in mental sharpness.

Harvard researchers noted the happiness factor last November, when they enlisted 2,250 study participants to record their thoughts and feelings immediately after being buzzed several times a day on their iPhones.

Better Earth

How Meditation May Change the Brain

© Getty Images
Over the December holidays, my husband went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Not my idea of fun, but he came back rejuvenated and energetic.

He said the experience was so transformational that he has committed to meditating for two hours daily, one hour in the morning and one in the evening, until the end of March. He's running an experiment to determine whether and how meditation actually improves the quality of his life.

I'll admit I'm a skeptic.

But now, scientists say that meditators like my husband may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants' meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.


Social and emotional learning programs found to boost students' skills

© Unknown
Being successful in school requires a combination of social, emotional, and academic competencies. A new analysis of more than 200 school-based social and emotional learning programs has found that such programs improve students' attitudes and behaviors, and in some cases, even boost academic performance.

The study appears in the January/February issue of the journal, Child Development. It was conducted by researchers at Loyola University Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In the first large-scale meta-analysis of school programs that enhance students' social and emotional development, researchers reviewed 213 school-based, universal social and emotional learning programs involving more than 270,000 K-12 students. (Universal programs are offered to all students in participating classes or schools rather than to select groups.)

These programs aim to promote students' abilities in one or more areas, including recognizing and managing emotions, establishing and maintaining positive relationships, setting and achieving positive goals, making responsible decisions, and constructively handling interpersonal situations. The programs examined included classroom-based instruction by teachers, classroom-based instruction by others (such as university researchers), and comprehensive programs featuring a combination of classroom-based teaching with additional programming at school or in families.


Neurobiologists Find that Weak Electrical Fields in the Brain Help Neurons Fire Together

© Image from Figure 4 in Anastassiou et.,Nature Neuroscience, 2011
Ephaptic coupling leads to coordinated spiking of nearby neurons, as measured using a 12-pipette electrophysiology setup developed in the laboratory of coauthor Henry Markram.
Coordinated behavior occurs whether or not neurons are actually connected via synapses.

The brain - awake and sleeping - is awash in electrical activity, and not just from the individual pings of single neurons communicating with each other. In fact, the brain is enveloped in countless overlapping electric fields, generated by the neural circuits of scores of communicating neurons. The fields were once thought to be an "epiphenomenon, a 'bug' of sorts, occurring during neural communication," says neuroscientist Costas Anastassiou, a postdoctoral scholar in biology at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

New work by Anastassiou and his colleagues, however, suggests that the fields do much more - and that they may, in fact, represent an additional form of neural communication.

"In other words," says Anastassiou, the lead author of a paper about the work appearing in the journal Nature Neuroscience, "while active neurons give rise to extracellular fields, the same fields feed back to the neurons and alter their behavior," even though the neurons are not physically connected - a phenomenon known as ephaptic coupling. "So far, neural communication has been thought to occur at localized machines, termed synapses. Our work suggests an additional means of neural communication through the extracellular space independent of synapses."


Following the principles we claim to hold/being the people we claim to be

If we transcend the sad, desperate triumphalist rhetoric of an empire in decline -- that is, if we break from the conventional platitudes about the inherent benevolence and superiority of the United States that underlie the politics of both major parties -- we can see clearly the breadth and depth of the problems we face.

Though it is easy for progressive people to focus on the smug frat-boy arrogance of George W. Bush and the shortsightedness, mendacity, and incompetence of his administration, the problem is not simply the reactionary policies of the current gang of thugs and thieves in Washington. Nor is the problem simply the timidity of a Democratic Party bereft of ideas, political acumen, or moral clarity in the face of the right-wing project. The problem is that we live in political, economic, and social systems that are fundamentally unjust and unsustainable.

Where do we look for insights into a path out of the madness of this system of white supremacy and patriarchy, of imperial domination and soulless capitalism, of an unsustainable high-energy/high-technology affluent society?

Eye 2

Predators in our midst - Swiss therapist 'abused 114 patients'


Christof Scheurer, speaker of the public prosecutor's office (R), speaks while Gabriele Berger, the head of Bern police's special investigations unit, listens at a press conference in Bern.
A social worker in Switzerland has confessed to sexually assaulting more than 100 mentally and physically disabled children and adults in care homes across Europe.

The 54-year-old man, who has not been identified, committed the crimes in a 28-year span, since 1982.

Swiss authorities said Tuesday that he had abused people while working as a therapist in nine different care homes in Switzerland and Germany.

The man, who is from Bern in Switzerland, has admitted to an overall 114 counts of sexual abuse.

All his victims have mental disabilities and some were even physically disabled, the Bern police said. The man has also confessed to eight attempted sexual assaults.

Authorities have so far identified 122 of his victims, most of them males, with the youngest being one year old at the time of the crime. Forty-two of them were over 18.


A mother's grief: The startling images which show how chimpanzees mourn their dead just like humans

Chimpanzees appear to mourn their dead infants just like humans, scientists have discovered.

Chimpanzee mothers establish close physical relationships with their young, carrying them for up to two years and nursing them until they are six.

But now scientists have filmed how one chimpanzee mother, whose 16-month-old infant died, apparently begins the grieving process.

It's the latest evidence highlighting just how similar chimps and other great apes are to humans.

© unknown
Grieving process: A chimpanzee mother tenderly lays her dead 16-month-old infant on the ground after carrying the body for more than 24 hours. Scientists filmed this heartbreaking footage in Chimfunshi, Zambia
The ape continued to carry the body for more than 24 hours before tenderly laying on the ground. Then from a short distance she watched over her child.

Periodically she returns to the body and touches the face and neck with her fingers to establish it was dead.


The Psychology of Food Riots: When Do Price Spikes Lead to Unrest?

Summary: The connection among rising prices, hunger, and violent civic unrest seems intuitively logical. But there was more to Tunisia's food protests than the logic of the pocketbook. The psychological element -- a sense of injustice that arises between seeing food prices rise and pouring a Molotov cocktail -- is more important.

Evan Fraser is Canada Research Chair in Global Human Security at the University of Guelph. Andrew Rimas is Editor of Improper Bostonian. They are the authors of Empires of Food: Feast Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilization.

The year 2010 was a tough one for the global food system. Wildfires, fueled by record temperatures and a summer drought, burned away much of Russia's wheat harvest, spurring the Kremlin to halt exports. Throughout the fall, commodities prices skyrocketed. The United Nations panicked and called an emergency summit in September. World food prices rose to a record high in December 2010. So far, 2011 has not been much better: in January, food prices were identified as one trigger for Tunisia's unrest as well as for riots across much of northern Africa, including Egypt, a country that depends heavily on Russian grain. It seems that a food crisis along the lines of the one in 2008, when rioters in dozens of countries furiously protested the price of grain, might again be in the works.

Assuming a connection among rising prices, hunger, and violent civic unrest seems logical. Many commentators have emphasized it, including Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who warned of mass starvation and other "dire consequences" if food prices were allowed to rise too high: "As we know . . . those kinds of questions sometimes end in war." For its part, the UN emergency summit last fall concluded with a reminder of the pledge taken during the 2009 World Food Summit: Countries must "refrain from taking measures that are inconsistent with the [World Trade Organization] rules." In other words, the UN reaffirmed that free trade and increased agricultural production are the best means to achieve food security.