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Fri, 07 May 2021
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


Dependency, the Dark Side of Support: A Helpful Partner Isn't Always Helpful

© Unknown
You might think that a loving partner helps keep you on track - say, when you want to stick to your jogging or concentrate on your studies. But a new study in Psychological Science, a publication of the Association of Psychological Science, reports the opposite: Thinking about the support a significant other offers in pursuing goals can undermine the motivation to work toward those goals - and can increase procrastination before getting down to work.

The study's authors, psychological scientists Gráinne M. Fitzsimons of Duke University and Eli J. Finkel of Northwestern University, call this phenomenon "self-regulatory outsourcing" - the unconscious reliance on someone else to move your goals forward, coupled by a relaxation of your own effort. It happens with friends and family, too.

Does this mean love doesn't bring out the best in us? Yes and no, says Fitzsimons. "If you look just at one goal" in isolation - as the study does - "there can be a negative effect. But relying on another person also lets you spread your energy across many goals, which can be effective if your partner is helpful."


Stress, Anxiety Both Boon and Bane to Brain


A cold dose of fear lends an edge to the here-and-now - say, when things go bump in the night.
"That edge sounds good. It sounds adaptive. It sounds like perception is enhanced and that it can keep you safe in the face of danger," says Alexander Shackman, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But it sounds like there's also a catch, one that Shackman and his coauthors - including Richard Davidson, UW-Madison psychology and psychiatry professor - described in the Jan. 19 Journal of Neuroscience.

"It makes us more sensitive to our external surroundings as a way of learning where or what a threat may be, but interferes with our ability to do more complex thinking," Davidson says.

Faced with the possibility of receiving an unpleasant electric shock, the study's subjects showed enhanced activity in brain circuits responsible for taking in visual information, but a muted signal in circuitry responsible for evaluating that information. Remove the threat of shock (and thus the stress and anxiety) and the effect is reversed: less power for vigilance, more power for strategic decision-making.

Comment: The solution to the paradox? Pay attention to realty left and right, learning about the dangers of the world, but with periods of respite so that we are able to evaluate what we see and our decisions with a clear and fully functional mind. Reading SOTT.net is a great way to do the former, and as for the latter, Éiriú Eolas is an excellent practice for dealing with the negative effects of stress and anxiety.


Brain Regions Sleep More Deeply When Used More

Sleepy Birds
© Michael Gehrisch/John Lesku
During deep sleep the brain is highly electrically active - but only in those regions, which were heavily used previously while awake.
When we are asleep, those regions of our brain that were particularly active during wakefulness sleep more deeply. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany and colleagues have demonstrated for the first time that this is also the case in birds.

The researchers prevented pigeons from taking their afternoon nap by showing them David Attenborough's nature documentary series The Life of Birds. An eye cap temporarily covered one eye during the movie session. During the following night, the researchers observed deeper sleep in the part of the brain neurologically connected to the stimulated eye compared with the same region in the other brain hemisphere. A non-visual region did not show such an asymmetry in sleep.

Birds are the only animals outside of mammals whose sleep is also divided into a deep sleep phase, the so-called "Slow Wave Sleep" (SWS) and a dream phase, REM sleep ("Rapid Eye Movement Sleep"). During SWS sleep the brain generates strong electrical signals which are manifested as high-amplitude low-frequency waves in the electroencephalogram (EEG).

Comment: The quality of your sleep depends on the quality of your life, and vice versa. For more information on sleep, please visit our forum discussion "Are You Getting Enough Sleep? Sleeping properly?" which includes excerpts from T.S. Wiley's book Lights Out.


It's in the genes: Scientists solve the mystery of sleepwalking

© Rex
Sleepwalkers can be injured during their nighttime wandering. Scientists believe they may have discovered one genetic cause of the disorder
It's a disorder that can be embarrassing and even dangerous, but scientists now believe they have discovered one of the secrets behind sleepwalking.

Researchers studied four generations of a family where nine members out of 22 had the condition.

They found that all the sufferers had a fault on a particular chromosome and carrying just one copy of this defective DNA was enough to cause sleepwalking.

The team from Washington University, led by Dr Christina Gurnett, hope the findings will help create new treatments.

Sleepwalking affects one in 10 children and around one in 50 adults. If a person with the condition is disturbed during the night, the primitive parts of their brain can spring into life while the conscious controlling part do not.

This can cause them to sit up, walk around and complete complex tasks, all while asleep.

Those with the condition, also known as somnambulism, may perform benign activities such as pulling on a pair of socks. However, there have been cases where sleepwalkers have been killed after walking into a busy road or they have injured a family member.

Little is known about what causes sleepwalking although stress and fatigue are known triggers. Episodes usually come on early in the night and can last from seconds to hours with the sufferer unable to remember the event when they wake.


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."