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Tue, 25 Apr 2017
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


Want to keep your mental edge in older age? Challenge your brain early in life

Continuing education helps people stay mentally healthy in later life.
Stimulating the brain by taking on leadership roles at work or staying on in education help people stay mentally healthy in later life, according to new research.

The large-scale investigation published in the journal PLOS Medicine and led by the University of Exeter, used data from more than 2,000 mentally fit people over the age of 65, examined the theory that experiences in early or mid life which challenge the brain make people more resilient to changes resulting from age or illness -- they have higher "cognitive reserve."

The analysis, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) found that people with higher levels of reserve are more likely to stay mentally fit for longer, making the brain more resilient to illnesses such as dementia.

Comment: Aging is a state of mind: Ways to defy the hands of time


Epiphany learning: Researchers discover a way to track 'aha' moments

Sudden insight, or epiphany learning, happens when you have an "aha moment" that unexpectedly solves a tricky problem or lets you understand something that had previously perplexed you. But until now, researchers had not had a good way to study how people actually experience this phenomenon.

Now, scientists at The Ohio State University have used eye-tracking and pupil dilation technology to see what happens as people figured out how to win a strategy game on a computer. Ian Krajbich, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology and economics at Ohio State, said:
"We could see our study participants figuring out the solution through their eye movements as they considered their options. We could predict they were about to have an epiphany before they even knew it was coming."

Most decision-making research has focused on reinforcement learning, where people gradually adjust their behavior in response to what they learn, said James Wei Chen, a doctoral student in economics at Ohio State who co-conducted the study.


Intentional mind-wandering is beneficial to our brains and our futures

Some types of mind wandering may be highly beneficial to our brains, and our futures.
Some types of mind wandering may be highly beneficial to our brains, and our futures.

Intentional daydreaming is linked to a thicker cortex (a good thing) in certain key areas of the brain, new research finds.

Directing the mind to wander is a cognitive skill that can be beneficial in some contexts.

For example, it can allow us to mentally rehearse upcoming events, or solve problems we might encounter.

In other words, it allows the brain to work out possible futures for us.

So, mind wandering is not always a failure of self-control that is inevitably linked to mistakes. The key is whether the mind wandering is intentional or not.

Comment: Read more about the ways that intentional daydreaming can enhance creativity and problem-solving:


Your brain is not a computer

No matter how hard they try, brain scientists and cognitive psychologists will never find a copy of Beethoven's 5th Symphony in the brain - or copies of words, pictures, grammatical rules or any other kinds of environmental stimuli. The human brain isn't really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does - not even simple things such as 'memories'.

Our shoddy thinking about the brain has deep historical roots, but the invention of computers in the 1940s got us especially confused. For more than half a century now, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists and other experts on human behaviour have been asserting that the human brain works like a computer.

To see how vacuous this idea is, consider the brains of babies. Thanks to evolution, human neonates, like the newborns of all other mammalian species, enter the world prepared to interact with it effectively. A baby's vision is blurry, but it pays special attention to faces, and is quickly able to identify its mother's. It prefers the sound of voices to non-speech sounds, and can distinguish one basic speech sound from another. We are, without doubt, built to make social connections.

2 + 2 = 4

Non-focused attention: Childrens' perceived limitations are actually a strength

Although adults can beat children at most cognitive tasks, new research shows that children's limitations can sometimes be their strength.

Deschoolers maintain that a child's learning should be curiosity-driven rather than dictated by teachers and textbooks, and that forcing kids to adhere to curricula quashes their natural inclination to explore and ask questions because children think differently.

In two studies, researchers found that adults were very good at remembering information they were told to focus on, and ignoring the rest. In contrast, 4- to 5-year-olds tended to pay attention to all the information that was presented to them -- even when they were told to focus on one particular item. That helped children to notice things that adults didn't catch because of the grownups' selective attention.

"We often think of children as deficient in many skills when compared to adults. But sometimes what seems like a deficiency can actually be an advantage," said Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

"That's what we found in our study. Children are extremely curious and they tend to explore everything, which means their attention is spread out, even when they're asked to focus. That can sometimes be helpful."

The results have important implications for understanding how education environments affect children's learning, he said.

Comment: Paying attention: What adults can learn from young children

Eye 1

How the eyes communicate emotion

Why did we evolve eyes so that are expressive? It started as a universal reaction to environmental stimuli, new research suggests, and evolved to communicate emotion.

For example, people in the study consistently associated narrowed eyes — which enhance our visual discrimination by blocking light and sharpening focus — with emotions related to discrimination, such as disgust and suspicion. In contrast, people linked open eyes — which expand our field of vision — with emotions related to sensitivity, like fear and awe.

Adam Anderson, professor of human development at Cornell University's College of Human Ecology, said:
"When looking at the face, the eyes dominate emotional communication. The eyes are 'windows to the soul' likely because they are first conduits for sight. Emotional expressive changes around the eye influence how we see, and in turn, this communicates to others how we think and feel."

Life Preserver

Addressing loneliness in children can prevent a lifetime of loneliness in adults

© shutterstock.com
Loneliness in adults is often a result of loneliness in childhood.
The Republicans' controversial effort to repeal the perhaps optimistically named Affordable Care Act because of rising premiums may be fatally stalled. But there are other ways to rein in health care costs that have been almost entirely overlooked. Making a serious effort to reduce loneliness could make a real difference.

Lonely people put heavy demands on our health care system. Loneliness impairs immune response and makes people more likely to develop serious medical problems like heart disease and stroke.

According to one meta-analysis, loneliness increases the risk of early death as much as smoking or being 100 pounds overweight. The risk is highest in people younger than 65. But lonely people don't go to doctors just for medical care. They're also dying for social contact.

Although loneliness is now recognized as a major public health problem, there hasn't been much discussion about how to address it.

As a clinician who treats mental health issues caused by loneliness, I've come to believe that we can't develop effective interventions for loneliness without first understanding what causes it.

Comment: It's important to remember that these kinds of attachment disorders can be caused by any of the main caregivers in a child's life, not just the mother, although in most cases she plays the most significant role in a child's development. But it's also a symptom of a pathological culture and society that has lost the values of community, family and trust in exchange for materialism and narcissism. Many people are growing up nowadays with little awareness of what it means to meet the emotional needs of themselves, let alone one another or their children.


How to avoid the Amygdala hijack

What do these three scenarios have in common?
  1. Road rage when someone cuts you off
  2. Running away from a hungry lion
  3. Reacting to criticism about your most deeply held beliefs
Surely road rage can't have anything to do with being chased by a wild animal that weighs 2-4 times more than you. And how could either of the first two scenarios have anything to do with being criticized? Let's think about it.

Our top priority is survival. In order to ensure survival, we rely on portions of our brain, like the amygdala, to identify threats and respond to them quickly. Our response to a threat is estimated to take only 12 thousandths of a second. The response is so fast that your heart starts racing, your blood pressure rises, and you start reacting emotionally before you even can consciously realize what is happening. You may even do things that leave you asking yourself, "What was I thinking?"


Positive relationships: The common denominator of happiness

How people describe both positive and negative events in their lives influences their perception of their own life. When scientists began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938 during the Great Depression, they hoped the longitudinal study would reveal clues to leading healthy and happy lives. They got more than they wanted.

After following the surviving Crimson men for nearly 80 years as part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world's longest studies of adult life, researchers have collected a cornucopia of data on their physical and mental health.

Of the original Harvard cohort recruited as part of the Grant Study, only 19 are still alive, all in their mid-90s. Among the original recruits were eventual President John F. Kennedy and longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. (Women weren't in the original study because the College was still all male.)

In addition, scientists eventually expanded their research to include the men's offspring, who now number 1,300 and are in their 50s and 60s, to find out how early-life experiences affect health and aging over time. Some participants went on to become successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, while others ended up as schizophrenics or alcoholics, but not on inevitable tracks.

Comment: See also:


Paying attention: What adults can learn from young children

Thinking like a five-year-old can help you learn more in a new environment.
Young children have one cognitive talent that most adults have forgotten.

That is the ability to pay attention to everything.

As adults we learn to focus our attention and block out distractions.

But, sometimes being distracted means noticing and learning more.

Comment: Missing the gorilla: Why we don't see what's right in front of our eyes