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Sat, 23 Jun 2018
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


Does Neurofeedback have the potential to help people overcome anxiety and depression?

© Todd Heisler/The New York Times
BRAIN TRAINING Practitioners say neurofeedback allows patients to alter their brain waves through practice.
You sit in a chair, facing a computer screen, while a clinician sticks electrodes to your scalp with a viscous goop that takes days to wash out of your hair. Wires from the sensors connect to a computer programmed to respond to your brain's activity.

Try to relax and focus. If your brain behaves as desired, you'll be encouraged with soothing sounds and visual treats, like images of exploding stars or a flowering field. If not, you'll get silence, a darkening screen and wilting flora.

This is neurofeedback, a kind of biofeedback for the brain, which practitioners say can address a host of neurological ills - among them attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, depression and anxiety - by allowing patients to alter their own brain waves through practice and repetition.

Black Magic

Could some serial killers be possessed?

serial killers
© Paul Ward
Without doubt, we humans took an important step forward when we stopped attributing every unexplained phenomenon, whether in the world around us or in our own psyches, to the action of supernatural forces. But is it possible that we've carried this undeniably successful and productive approach too far? Perhaps in some cases, especially cases of extremely aberrant human behavior, there is a supernatural component, whether we're talking about miracles performed by saints or heinous crimes committed by the type of people we still characterize as "monsters."

In other words, can some varieties of evil be better understood in terms of spirit possession or obsession, rather than as a simple breakdown of neurochemistry in combination with subconscious drives?

I became more interested in this question after reading about the serial killer Charles Cullen, who, in his capacity as a nurse, murdered at least forty patients and probably many more. Throughout his life, Cullen made repeated suicide attempts, starting at the age of nine, when he drank chemicals from a chemistry set. After joining the Navy, he attempted suicide seven times before receiving a medical discharge. His first confirmed murders occurred a decade later, after which he attempted suicide on four occasions - three times in 1993 and again in 2000.

Now, it could be argued that these suicide attempts were not serious, since none of them succeeded. But at least some of them do appear to have been legitimate attempts at ending his own life. It's doubtful that, as a nine-year-old, he would have been sure that the chemicals he ingested would not prove fatal. And his last attempt, in 2000, was thwarted only because neighbors smelled the smoke coming from a charcoal grill he'd lit inside his apartment in the hope of poisoning himself with carbon monoxide.

At the very least, it appears that Charles Cullen was a deeply divided personality. On one hand, he murdered scores of people over a long period, with no apparent hesitation or remorse. On the other hand, he repeatedly tried to take his own life, as if he found his homicidal obsessions intolerable. Is this inner conflict rooted only in psychological or neurological dysfunction, or could it be indicative of an external personality trying to control and distort his behavior, and of his increasingly desperate attempts to escape?


Surreal or nonsensical things can make you smarter

smoking mantis
Surreal books and films could make you smarter, research finds.

Stories by Franz Kafka or films by master of the absurd David Lynch could boost learning.

Even an unsettling feeling, like the absurdity of life, can engender the desired state.

The reason is that surreal or nonsensical things put our mind into overdrive looking for meaning.

When people are more motivated to search for meaning, they learn better, the psychologists found.

Dr Travis Proulx, the study's first author, explained:
"The idea is that when you're exposed to a meaning threat -- something that fundamentally does not make sense -- your brain is going to respond by looking for some other kind of structure within your environment.

And, it turns out, that structure can be completely unrelated to the meaning threat."

Comment: On a related note - when people suffer traumatic events (which inherently don't make sense at the moment they experience them), one thing that really helps to make sense of it, heal and learn is through writing.


'Helicopter parents' are to blame for the excess of feelings and poor social skills of Millennials

© Adam Berry/Getty Images
A mother plays with her 3-year-old daughter on a playground in September 2012 in Berlin, Germany. New research finds children of over-controlling "helicopter moms" struggle in school and have difficulty making friends.
A regular object of ridicule on the jungle gym, the "helicopter parent" has inspired countless analyses that paint a disturbing picture of over-dependence and stunted emotional maturity in affected children. To confirm what playground gossipers have long muttered under their breath, researchers of a new study literally took candy from a child.

Children of over-controlling mothers experience heightened emotional problems, poor social skills and limited academic success throughout elementary school, says a study published Monday in the journal Developmental Psychology. Starting as young as 2 years old, children of "helicopter moms" developed dependent behaviors that limited their control over their emotions and inhibitions and hindered their achievement as pre-teens.

In a study of over 400 American children and their mothers, more than half white and more than 80 percent married, psychologists measured children's emotional and cognitive development at ages 2, 5 and 10 over the course of eight years. At 2, mothers were asked to play with their child, then work with him or her to clean up toys. Mothers who attempted to structure the activity and issue repeated commands to their toddler were rated as highly controlling. At the same age, children with observed aggression and destructive behaviors were likely to portray poor social skills, less success in school and more emotional problems at 10.

Comment: Some of the symptoms of the children of 'helicopter parents' are somewhat similar to the personality traits described in Aleta Edwards' book Fear of the Abyss. Could there be a link?


Research finds marriage helps ward off heart disease and stroke

married couple
© AFP Photo/Johannes MYBURGH
Even if marriage is sometimes more a bed of nails than roses, living into old age with a partner may help ward off heart disease and stroke, researchers said Tuesday.

A sweeping survey of research conducted over the last two decades covering more than two million people aged 42 to 77 found that being hitched significantly reduced the risk of both maladies, they reported in the medical journal Heart.

The study examined ethnically varied populations in Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia, adding weight to the results.

Compared to people living in spousal union, the divorced, widowed or never married were 42 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and 16 percent more likely to have coronary heart disease, the study found.

Snakes in Suits

14 thought-control tactics narcissists use to dominate and confuse people

narcissists damage
Narcissists' lives are about winning, generally at others' expense. Many narcissists pursue a win-at-all-costs, anything-goes approach. The casualties: Honesty, empathy and reciprocity.

Narcissists distort the truth through disinformation, oversimplifying, ridiculing and sowing doubt. Narcissists can be incredibly skilled at using classic elements of thought-control and brainwashing.

To get free of narcissistic thought control it is essential to spot the distortions narcissists deliberately and instinctively practice. Applying critical thinking skills can inoculate you against their campaigns.

People 2

Personality research finds extraverts less likely to suffer mental health problems

The personality traits that are linked to both good and bad mental health.

People who are extraverted - self-confident and cheerful - are less likely to suffer mental health problems, personality research finds.

However, people who are aggressive and neurotic - a tendency to worry and be emotionally unstable - are at higher risk of mental health problems.

Neurotic people are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, as well as drink and drug problems.


Training one's 'compassion muscle' may boost brain's resilience to others' suffering

© iStock
A new study suggests that compassion meditation training may reduce the distress a person feels when witnessing another’s suffering. It may also improve their ability and likelihood to respond with compassion.
It can be distressing to witness the pain of family, friends or even strangers going through a hard time. But what if, just like strengthening a muscle or learning a new hobby, we could train ourselves to be more compassionate and calm in the face of others' suffering?

That is the question behind research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a new study suggests that as little as two weeks of compassion meditation training - intentionally cultivating positive wishes to understand and relieve the suffering of others - may reduce the distress a person feels when witnessing another's suffering. It may also improve their ability and likelihood to respond with compassion.

The findings, published May 22 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, may have implications for professions in which people routinely work with others who are suffering, like doctors, law enforcement officers and first responders who experience high levels of distress or empathic burnout.

Comment: Designing robust studies is difficult when attending to ephemeral subjects like meditation and compassion. But none the less, the results here are interesting. The idea that increasing compassion actually makes one more resilient to other's suffering, and not lead one to a more calloused view, as is often seen in those who are in healing and caring professions long term, is actually quite promising.

See also:

Cloud Grey

The pain and lessons of persistent regret can teach how to live better now

seashore scene
Lingering regrets, the kind you hang onto for years, can be great company, returning daily to keep some part of you living an alternate version of your life and career. They're the stuff of sublime tragic novels and films. They can even be functional if they propel you forward, determined not to make the same mistakes again.

Intuitively, though, we know that left to fester, regrets can control your mood to ill effect and make you miserable.

The solution is not to repress the thoughts or take on some kind of delusional "no regrets" bravado, says Shai Davidai, a psychology professor at The New School and co-author of a recent study on regret. Instead, he argues, we're better off digging into our oldest woes and becoming acquainted with their nature, and the nature of our response to them.

Comment: See also: The Amazing Power of Regret to Shape Our Future


Some amazing ways exercise changes your personality

happy woman
© Garcinia Cambogia 1234 by Creative Bioscience
How to change your personality for the better.

Being more physically active makes people more extraverted, conscientious, agreeable and open to new experience, new research finds.

A few of the benefits of these personality changes include:
  • Higher conscientiousness is linked to more success in life,
  • more extraverted people experience more positive emotions,
  • and being open to experience is linked to creativity and intelligence.
These changes to personality have been documented over years and decades.

Naturally, remaining sedentary is linked to the opposite pattern in personality. Sedentary people have the tendency to become less agreeable, more introverted, less open to experience and less conscientious.

The good news is that only relatively small amounts of exercise are enough, over the years, to lead to positive changes to personality.