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Tue, 17 Jan 2017
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Questioning the consensus: Maybe we can't really measure "implicit bias"

© Jordin Isip / The Chronicle Review
I harbor a moderate preference for white faces. You probably do, too: About 70 percent of people who take the race version of the Implicit Association Test show the same tendency — that is, they prefer faces with typically European-American features over those with African-American features. Since it first went online in 1998, millions have visited Harvard's Project Implicit website, and the results have been cited in thousands of peer-reviewed papers. No other measure has been as influential in the conversation about unconscious bias.

That influence extends well beyond the academy. The findings come up often in discussions of police shootings of black men, and the concept of implicit bias circulated widely after Hillary Clinton mentioned it during the presidential campaign. The test provides scientific grounding for the idea that unacknowledged prejudice often lurks just below society's surface. "When we relax our active efforts to be egalitarian, our implicit biases can lead to discriminatory behavior," according to the Project Implicit website, "so it is critical to be mindful of this possibility if we want to avoid prejudice and discrimination."

In other words, beware your inner bigot.

But the link between unconscious bias, as measured by the test, and biased behavior has long been debated among scholars, and a new analysis casts doubt on the supposed connection.

Magnify

Is it possible to get narcissists to feel empathy?

© Flickr/ihave3kids
A simple technique to help narcissists develop more fellow-feeling. Narcissists aren't much interested in other people's suffering, or, for that matter, any of other people's feelings.

Erica Hepper, the author of a new study on the subject, explains that narcissists are:
"A bit full of themselves, self-centered, and don't seem too concerned about the effects they have on other people."
New research by Hepper and colleagues shows, though, that narcissists can be made to feel empathy, if given a nudge in the right direction (Hepper et al., 2014).

In the study, participants were split into two groups: 'low narcissists' and 'high narcissists'. Those high on narcissism in this study were not considered to have a clinical disorder.

Blue Planet

How cultural contexts can shape mental illness

As a student of literature, I've spent a lot of time studying cultural narratives - the stories we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our reality. Browsing through the Hearing Voices Café newspapers at Wellcome Collection's 'Bedlam' exhibition the other day got me thinking: what bearing might cultural narratives surrounding mental illness have on an individual's expression and experience of psychopathology?

Clinicians have been learning more and more in recent years about how things like geographic location, worldview, ethnicity, religious beliefs, societal expectations, culturally specific ideas about interdependence versus individuality, family structure and availability of resources can all influence the types, rates and prognoses of mental illnesses across cultures. Considering mental illness within relevant cultural contexts can provide clues about the kinds of symptoms people might experience; the degree to which they will have to contend with social stigmas; the presence or absence of a support network at home; the likelihood that they will seek help; and the effectiveness of different treatment or management strategies. What have we been culturally conditioned to think about mental health and, by extension, ourselves?

The fourth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Western psychiatry's authoritative mental health reference manual) contained a list of twenty-five culture-bound syndromes. The DSM-V has since replaced that oversimplified definition with the three concepts of cultural syndromes, cultural idioms of distress and cultural explanations of distress. Some syndromes have been found to be less localised than previously thought, and have instead been identified by different names or variations in expression across cultures.

Comment: More food for thought:

Cultural insanity: Ponerized Western consumer culture is creating a demoralized man in psycho-spiritual crisis


People

Change your life by trusting your future self

It's the first week of 2017, and Science of Us is exploring the science that explains how people make meaningful changes in their lives. Handy information for resolution season.

Being a human is hard. We know the sorts of choices we ought to make, and we earnestly intend to make them, but when the time comes, we don't. We want to lose weight, but we eat a sundae. We want to get in shape, but we sit on the couch. We want to save money, but we buy a plane ticket to Italy.

Funnily enough, scientists can't agree why this is.

The dominant idea in psychology and popular culture alike is that we have a part of our brain that is rational and knows what's good for us, and another part that's impulsive and wants bad things. They struggle on and on and eventually the rational part gets tired and gives in. Game over. It's a depressing picture.

What you might not have heard, though, is that in recent years a competing model has emerged from the field of addiction studies. In this conception, the human brain doesn't have two warring parts, but one unitary system that prioritizes immediately rewarding options over those that pay off later.

The struggle, then, isn't really between good and bad, but between the future and the present. And what's exciting about this way of looking at things is that not only does this explain why some people can, and do, win the battle against temptation, but it also gives the rest of us a strategy for how we can do the same.

Bulb

Hard-wired: The brain's circuitry for political belief

© Photo/Courtesy of Brain and Creativity Institute at USC
The amygdala -- the two almond-shaped areas hugging the center of the brain near the front -- tends to become active when people dig in their heels about a political belief.
A USC-led study confirms what seems increasingly true in American politics: People become more hard-headed in their political beliefs when provided with contradictory evidence.

Neuroscientists at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC said the findings from the functional MRI study seem especially relevant to how people responded to political news stories, fake or credible, throughout the election.

"Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong," said lead author Jonas Kaplan, an assistant research professor of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself."

To determine which brain networks respond when someone holds firmly to a belief, the neuroscientists with the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC compared whether and how much people change their minds on nonpolitical and political issues when provided counter-evidence.

Comment: For more information on this phenomenon, check out the work of Bob Altemeyer, author of The Authoritarians which can be downloaded for free from his website. The article: Bob Altmeyer's Global Game Change and the authoritarian personality, is also a terrific read.


Heart

Can't keep your New Year's resolutions? Try being kind to yourself

© Kalyan Kanuri, CC BY-SA
Making New Year resolutions?
Many of us will start out the New Year by making a list of resolutions - changes we want to make to be happier such as eating better, volunteering more often, being a more attentive spouse, and so on. But, as we know, we will often fail. After a few failures we will typically give up and go back to our old habits.

Why is it so hard to stick to resolutions that require us to make effective or lasting changes?

I would argue the problem isn't that we try and we fail - - the problem is how we treat ourselves when we fail. I study self-compassion, and my research and that of others show that how we relate to personal failure - with kindness or harsh self-judgment - is incredibly important for building resilience.

From early childhood, we are taught how we must succeed at all costs. What most of us aren't taught is how to fail successfully so we can change and grow.

One of the best ways to deal with failure is to have self-compassion.

Comment: See also:

Self-compassion, recognition of our common humanity
Self-Compassion: The Most Important Life Skill?
Acceptance and moving forward: Practicing self-compassion helps us cast off the dead weight of regret


Hearts

Take rest: Restorative yoga triggers your relaxation response

I was having coffee with an old friend when I found myself interrupted—repeatedly—by a series of "helpful" reminders and messages from my smartphone. With each blrrpt, boop, and ping, my breath caught, my neck muscles tightened, and my jaw clenched.

This unconscious gripping is the work of the autonomic nervous system, or "fight-or-flight" response. Though few of us will face an actual saber-toothed tiger, the body's ancient physical reaction to attack remains a default setting in stress-filled modern times, says Judith Hanson Lasater, a teacher of restorative yoga.

But our intelligent human bodies also possess the ability to shut down an overactive stress response, she says. The parasympathetic nervous system triggers the "rest-and-digest" mode: the heart rate decreases, muscles relax, breathing slows, and blood pressure drops. Ahhh . . .

Fortunately, we can learn to activate the triggers that tell our bodies it's time to slow down. And with a little practice, we can train ourselves to remain in that relaxed state long term, Lasater says. The practice uses props and long, mostly supine, holds to passively open the body.

"Deep relaxation is not a pill to take, it is a powerful choice to make," she says. "We can change our mental state through our body and consciously choose a different way."

Target

Ariana Grande, Twitter thread on sexism requires 'otherworldly patience'

© New York Daily News
Ariana Grande at the 2016 Grammys
Pop superstar Ariana Grande has mediated a remarkably cool-headed discussion about sexual harassment and objectification on Twitter this week, proving that the social media platform can occasionally rise above the bubbling fecal puddle of its loudest user base.

On Tuesday, Grande tweeted that she was getting takeout with boyfriend Mac Miller when a "young boy" followed Miller to the car to tell him how big a fan he was. Grande wrote that, sitting in the passenger seat, "I thought all of this was cute and exciting until he said 'ariana is sexy as hell man i see you, i see you hitting that!!!' *pause* Hitting that? the f**k??"


The encounter made Grande feel "sick and objectified," she wrote; since it happened, she's been "really quiet and hurt." It may seem trivial to some, she continued, but these too frequent reminders that women are viewed as achievements or belongings for which to congratulate fellow men "contribute to women's sense of fear and inadequacy."

Comment: How to cope with the residual effects of degrading insults and sexual innuendo is an emotionally crippling problem for many women, but it becomes especially prevalent for those in the celebrity spotlight deemed 'public property.' This young woman had courage and patience to take on stereotypical responses and convey the damage inherent in this thoughtless behavior. Maybe it will always be this way and men remain crass and clueless, but women have both a right and a say in how they are treated by the other half of humanity.


Brain

The late effects of stress: New insights into how the brain responds to trauma

© Chattarji laboratory
This is a pyramidal neuron.
Mrs. M would never forget that day. She was walking along a busy road next to the vegetable market when two goons zipped past on a bike. One man's hand shot out and grabbed the chain around her neck. The next instant, she had stumbled to her knees, and was dragged along in the wake of the bike. Thankfully, the chain snapped, and she got away with a mildly bruised neck. Though dazed by the incident, Mrs. M was fine until a week after the incident.

Then, the nightmares began.

She would struggle and yell and fight in her sleep every night with phantom chain snatchers. Every bout left her charged with anger and often left her depressed. The episodes continued for several months until they finally stopped. How could a single stressful event have such extended consequences?

A new study by Indian scientists has gained insights into how a single instance of severe stress can lead to delayed and long-term psychological trauma. The work pinpoints key molecular and physiological processes that could be driving changes in brain architecture.

Comment: See also:


Music

Researchers discover the most relaxing song on Earth

Scientists discover that listening to the song "Weightless" by Marconi Union can results in a striking 65 percent reduction in a person's overall anxiety, and a 35 percent reduction in their usual physiological resting rates.

The Anxiety Pandemic
"Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained." ~ Arthur Somers Roche
Anxiety is a growing pandemic in our society. The mainstream solution is a trip to the psychiatrist and an indefinite prescription for pharmaceuticals. As a result, many anxiety sufferers find themselves dependent on psychotropic drugs but still searching for relief.

Because of this, it begs the question if a pharmaceutical solution even works. Many believe that treating anxiety with a holistic approach may be more effective than expensive, addictive and sometimes even dangerous psychotropic drugs. Holistic alternatives range from treating anxiety with foods that fight inflammation, to exercise, yoga, and meditation. People also like to use age-old tricks for calming nerves, such as breath exercises.