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Mon, 27 Feb 2017
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


New research: What's so good about lying?

© Image Zoo/Getty Images
Black Lies • White Lies • A Gray Area
Do you teach children to lie?

I do. All the time. And you do, too! If you're like most American parents, you point to presents under the Christmas tree and claim that a man named Santa Claus put them there. Or, you insinuate that a creature called the Tooth Fairy swapped out your child's fallen tooth for a dollar. Those are false statements, deliberately made to people who trust us adults.

But your lying probably goes beyond these benign deceptions. How many of us tell our kids (or students) that everything is fine when, in fact, everything is totally wrong, in order to preserve their sense of security? Have you been honest about everything having to do with, say, your love life, or what happens at work? We don't just lie to protect our kids from hard truths, either; we actually coach them to lie, as when we ask them to express delight at tube socks from Aunt Judy or Uncle Bob's not-so-delicious beef stew.

These are what scientists call "prosocial lies"—falsehoods told for someone else's benefit, as opposed to "antisocial lies" that are told strictly for your own personal gain.

Most research suggests that children develop the ability to lie at about age three. By age five, almost all children can (and will) lie to avoid punishment or chores—and a minority will sporadically tell prosocial lies. From ages seven to eleven, they begin to reliably lie to protect other people or to make them feel better—and they'll start to consider prosocial lies to be justified. They're not just telling white lies to please adults. The research to date suggests that they are motivated by strong feelings of empathy and compassion.

Why should that be the case? What is going on in children's minds and bodies that allows this capacity to develop? What does this developmental arc reveal about human beings—and how we take care of each other? That's what a recent wave of studies has started to uncover. Taken together, this research points to one message: Sometimes, lying can reveal what's best in people.


Writing your own obituary to inspire others

Death is a common fear. How will we die? What will it feel like? Where will we go? Like trying to understand our existence or our place in the universe, death can hurt to think about. There are so many questions that cannot be answered, frustrating many to the point of refusing to think about it at all.

While most of us can try to turn it off, people who are terminally ill don't have that luxury. We all know we are going to die, but for many, the idea that we are too young, too healthy, too happy, or too strong to die just yet, or for a very long time, gives us comfort. But people who know their days are numbered typically have a shift in perspective; a new viewpoint on death.

Sonia Todd, a 38-year-old woman diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer, was one of those people. She knew death was coming sooner than later, and this led her to look at life a little differently. In a way, she embraced her death as a chance for leaving behind an image of herself on her own terms. Writing her own obituary, Todd wanted to do things her way, but not just for her — for anyone who cared to read her last words as well.


Exhaustion: Why it is not unique to our overstimulated age

© Wellcome images
Is ours the most exhausting age ever? Many sociologists, psychologists and cultural critics argue that the rapid spread of exhaustion syndromes such as depression, stress and burnout are consequences of modernity and its challenges. The argument goes that human energy levels have basically remained static throughout history, while the cognitive, emotional and temporal demands on the modern subject have increased so sharply that a chronic deficit of inner resources ensues. The most frequently named 'exhaustion generators' are the social changes resulting from acceleration, new technologies and the transformation of manufacturing into service and finance economies. Email and mobile phones, for example, make workers perpetually reachable, eroding the boundary between work and leisure, therefore making it difficult for employees to ever switch off from their jobs. Add to this the intensified competition from globalised capitalism and the result is that, today, the worker rarely leaves work. No wonder everyone is exhausted.

What often goes unnoticed, though, is that anxieties about exhaustion are not peculiar to our age. Those who imagine that life in the past was simpler, slower and better are wrong. The experience of exhaustion, and anxieties about exhaustion epidemics in the wider population, are not bound to a particular time and place. On the contrary: exhaustion and its effects have preoccupied thinkers since classical antiquity.


Paralysis by analysis: Worrying is 'like doing two things at once'

© Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Here, I have just what you need: a new thing to worry about. Recently, in The Wall Street Journal, University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock provides a brief overview of her career, which has focused largely on the study of anxiety, with a special emphasis on what makes people (even experts) choke under pressure. During the interview, Beilock makes a simple but insightful observation about nervousness, and why it can be so distracting. "When we're worried, it captures our attention," she told the WSJ. "It's like doing two things at once."

It's hard to write, or speak in public, or ... do anything, really, if you're worrying at the same time. Overthinking helps no one and often leads to choking under pressure; or, as Beilock rhymes, "It's paralysis by analysis." However: Writing seems to help. From the WSJ:
As a general piece of advice, she encourages people to write down their worries before an event. In a paper published in the journal Science in 2011, she studied groups of students about to take a test. Those who spent 10 minutes before the test writing down their worries scored higher than those who didn't, and especially students who reported being anxious about tests got higher scores.

Comment: Read more about the benefits of writing for better mental and emotional clarity:


Change in sense of humour can be early signal of dementia

Nine years before memory changes, this can signal problems.

Changes in sense of humour could be an early sign of dementia, a new study finds.

A shift to preferring slapstick humour — like Mr Bean — over satirical or absurdist comedy, such as Monty Python, could be an early sign of Alzheimer's.

Friends and relatives of those with dementia reported seeing changes around nine years before the more typical memory problems.

Dr Camilla Clark, who led the study, said:
"As sense of humour defines us and is used to build relationships with those around us, changes in what we find funny has impacts far beyond picking a new favourite TV show.

We've highlighted the need to shift the emphasis from dementia being solely about memory loss.

These findings have implications for diagnosis - not only should personality and behaviour changes ring alarm bells, but clinicians themselves need to be more aware of these symptoms as an early sign of dementia.

As well as providing clues to underlying brain changes, subtle differences in what we find funny could help differentiate between the different diseases that cause dementia.

Humour could be a particularly sensitive way of detecting dementia because it puts demands on so many different aspects of brain function, such as puzzle solving, emotion and social awareness."
The study included data from 48 friends and relatives of people with dementia.

Comment: There are many natural means of combatting the brain changes dementia brings:


90-Year-Old's advice to combat loneliness

He wrote it after he lost his partner and sister.

© Manchester City Council
Derek Taylor felt lonely. So he did something about it.
Derek Taylor, a 90-year-old man from London, England, felt lonely and isolated following the deaths of two loved ones. So he decided to do something about it, and now he's sharing his wisdom with the rest of the world.

"I'd lost a partner, and my sister had passed away," Taylor told the BBC. "And the older you get, the less people seem to contact you. And I thought, 'What can I do to stop being lonely?'"


Music stimulates same area of brain as sex and drugs

Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll has been a preoccupation of generations of young people since the 1960s, while even even Shakespeare wrote: "If music be the food of love, play on."

And now scientists have discovered one reason why they seem to go so well together.

For the same chemical system in the brain that produces feelings of pleasure as a result of having sex, taking recreational drugs or eating tasty food is also stimulated by listening to a favourite tune.

To test the theory, the researchers found a way to temporarily block the natural opioid substances produced when we are having a good time.

Seventeen test subjects were then played music to see if doing this had an effect.

Dr Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Canada as well as a musician and record producer, said: "The impressions our participants shared with us after the experiment were fascinating.

Comment: See also: Different notes for different folks: How music makes the brain happy


Study: The human empathy connection to dogs and their facial expressions

© Pinterest
Any guesses?
Highly empathetic people experience the facial expression of dogs more intensely than their less empathetic peers. Researchers with the University of Helsinki and Aalto University found human empathy isn't limited to the human species. The ability to share and understand another's feelings is an expansive trait.

"Empathy affected assessments of dogs' facial expressions even more than previous experience of dogs, probably because the face is a biologically important stimulus for humans," Miiamaaria Kujala, a postdoctoral researcher at Helsinki, said in a news release. "Our earlier studies have showed, however, that when considering the entire body language of dogs, previous experience of dogs increases in importance."

In some ways, the findings aren't all that surprising. Darwin noted similarities between the facial expressions of different mammal species. Numerous studies have illuminated said similarities. But only a few studies have examined cross-species facial expression understanding.

The findings of the latest study -- published in the journal PLOS ONE -- showed highly empathetic people tend to recognize the expressions of dogs more quickly, accurately and intensely than others. Researchers say it's possible the participants are overstating the emotions expressed by the dogs.

"Empathy speeds up and intensifies the assessment of dogs' facial expressions, but defining the accuracy of such assessments is currently unreliable," Kujala said. Previous research has shown dogs possess cross-species emotional intelligence, too.

Comment: A basic, bare bones definition: Emotional intelligence represents an ability to validly reason with emotions and to use emotions to enhance thought.
Do dogs have this capability, or do they have refined instincts? Or both?

Comment: Physiological responses and cognitions: It is more likely dogs read human emotions far better and more accurately than we do and they don't need a non-conclusive study to prove it.

People 2

Mirror-touch synesthesia: Some really do feel for others

© Evan Krape/University of Delaware
University of Delaware professor Jared Medina and graduate students Yuqi Liu and Kyle Vietz are working to shed light on mirror-touch synesthesia.
When a student in a University of Delaware study watched a video of someone else's hand being touched, she felt the touch on her own hand. While that may seem a little eerie to most of us, she's not alone. About two in 100 people have this condition called mirror-touch synesthesia, or MTS.

In an article published in Cortex, UD researchers reveal new information about MTS based on one of the largest studies of its kind. The subject pool was more than 2,000 undergrads from multiple sections of an introductory psychology course who volunteered as research participants over the past few years.

"Some of the students in our study didn't know that what they were experiencing was different from the rest of the population, and it blew their minds," says Jared Medina, assistant professor in UD's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "But if you have mirror-touch synesthesia, there's nothing wrong with you. It's just an interesting difference, like being double-jointed."



The best treatment for anxiety and stress is meditation

© Anton Gepolov / Fotolia
Pharmaceutical companies may need a dose of their own medications. A new study finds the best treatment for anxiety may not come from your local pharmacy, but rather a quiet room in your home.

Eight weeks of mindfulness meditation significantly reduced anxiety for GAD sufferers, a new study finds.

The study, published in the Jan. 24 edition of Psychiatry Research, confirmed that eight-weeks of mindfulness meditation can be crucially beneficial for those who suffer from anxiety.

Researchers from the Georgetown University Medical Center selected 89 people who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder to undergo one of two different forms of treatment. One group took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, which centered around meditation, and then determined whether or not it helped them relax. Those in the control group took an eight-week stress management education course, which centers more on habits such as diet, sleep, and general wellness.

Before and after the study, participants underwent the Trier Social Stress Test, a common experimental practice for inducing a stress response. Participants are asked on a moment's notice to perform one of the most anxiety-causing tasks for many people: give a speech in front of an audience.

Comment: We predict that mindfulness will beat out psychiatric drug therapies but drugs will continue to be used as the gold standard of treatment regardless of the evidence.