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Sun, 28 Aug 2016
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Science of the Spirit


Major depression now believed to be caused by abnormalities in immune cells of the brain

Major depression, now believed to be caused by abnormalities in immune cells of the brain, may revolutionize next-generation psychiatric medication treatment, according to Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers.

"Microglia" cells in the brain, acting as first and main form of active immune defense of central nervous system, may be a key to causing depression. Latest theory opens door to development of a new generation of anti-depressant medications.

Major depression, which afflicts one in six people at some point in their life, is the leading global cause of disability - surpassing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer and HIV/AIDS combined.

In a groundbreaking theoretical review paper published in the peer-reviewed journal, Trends in Neurosciences, researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem suggest that "progress in the understanding of the biology of depression has been slow," requiring expanding beyond the "abnormalities in the functioning of neurons." The contribution of other brain cells—often neglected by researchers—may be more relevant in causing depression, according to psychobiology Prof. Raz Yirmiya, director of the Hebrew University's Laboratory for PsychoNeuroImmunology, and senior author of the journal's paper, titled "Depression as a microglial disease."

Comment: Depression is occurring at record levels in the human population, as is the distribution of antidepressants. There are a variety of natural methods of mitigating the effects of depression, including dietary changes and supplementation. It can also be helpful to see depression as a response to a negative environment.


Emotional granularity: The value of fine-tuning your feelings

When you heard about the shooting in Orlando, were you outraged, crushed, or sad? When you saw how Donald Trump made it all about him, were you miffed, appalled, or mad? These answers matter for your well-being because, as an increasing body of research is finding, it's better to be maudlin, morose, or melancholy rather than to just "feel bad."

If you have "finely tuned feelings," writes psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett in the New York Times, you're exhibiting "emotional granularity," defined in a review as the "adaptive value of putting feelings into words with a high degree of complexity." In experiments, people high in granularity use a range of adjectives in reporting their experiments, while also describing the intensity of things like anger, embarrassment, guilt, and regret. People low in granularity will use angry, sad, or afraid to capture unpleasant things and excited, happy, or calm to describe pleasant things. The benefits of granularity go beyond being well-spoken, Barrett says: The greater your granularity, the "more precisely" you can experience your self and your world.

Comment: The following article can boost your emotional vocabulary:

10 extremely precise words for emotions you never knew you had


Could brain scans be used in forensic psychiatric examinations of diminished responsibility of a psychopath?

© Radboud University
A strong focus on reward combined with a lack of self-control appears to be linked to the tendency to commit an offence. Brain scans show that this combination occurs in psychopathic criminals, say researchers from Nijmegen in an article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Many criminal offenders display psychopathic traits, such as antisocial and impulsive behaviour. And yet some individuals with psychopathic traits do not commit offences for which they are convicted.

As with any other form of behaviour, psychopathic behaviour has a neurobiological basis.

Researchers from the Donders Institute and the Department of Psychiatry at Radboudumc wanted to find out whether the way a psychopath's brain works is visibly different from that of a non-psychopath. And whether there are differences between the brains of criminal and non-criminal psychopaths.

Reward centre more strongly activated

Dirk Geurts, researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at Radboudumc: "We carried out tests on 14 convicted psychopathic individuals, and 20 non-criminal individuals, half of whom had a high score on the psychopathy scale. The participants performed tests while their brain activity was measured in an MRI scanner.

We saw that the reward centre in the brains of people with many psychopathic traits (both criminal and non-criminal) were more strongly activated than those in people without psychopathic traits. It has already been proved that the brains of non-criminal individuals with psychopathic traits are triggered by the expectation of reward. This research shows that this is also the case for criminal individuals with psychopathic traits."


Countering distraction: How to develop laser-like mental focus

Even the best of us get distracted, so find out how to develop laser-like mental focus.

People who are highly creative are also very easily distracted.

One of the most famous examples was the French writer Marcel Proust, who lined the bedroom where he wrote with cork and used ear-stoppers to help him concentrate.

So, if you find it hard to focus you are in good company, don't worry.

Try these science-backed steps for a laser-like mental focus:

1. Choose only one thing to do

Our conscious attention is not really designed for doing more than one thing at a time.

First and foremost, then: choose just one thing to do.

This is easy to say, harder to follow through on.

Often there is a larger task which is chunked down into smaller tasks.

Comment: More techniques to help you improve your concentration and productivity:


Is minimalist living the key to happiness?

A few years ago my family of four packed up our household and moved across the country. We made the drive in our car while our belongings were hauled in a moving truck. We arrived to our new house with little more than some clothes in our suitcases, the kids' favorite toys, and whatever necessities (some dishes, our coffee maker) we could fit in the trunk. Soon we found out that our moving truck was running late. A few days turned into what was ultimately more than 4 weeks as our belongings toured the country in a bizarre series of missteps on the part of the moving company. You might think this sounds extremely inconvenient, and of course in many ways it was; however, as a family we quickly became accustomed to having less. Now, when I think back about that month without our things, I think of it fondly, almost longingly.

What Brings Joy?

Marie Kondo has built an empire out of minimalism—her primary rule is to only keep material things that "spark joy" in the owner. I can tell you that after a week or so in our near-empty new house, it was difficult to even remember what we'd packed in that truck. I sometimes felt a pang for a particular book or record but the moment would pass. And suddenly life was about noticing moments, something I never seemed to do in our house full of things. So many things! Did we really need any of it?

Comment: Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities and Our Health


10 extremely precise words for emotions you never knew you had

In recent years, neuroscience has introduced a new way of thinking about our emotions. The scientists behind the latest brain-imaging studies say they can now pinpoint with precision where these feelings are located within our heads. In 2013, for instance, a team of psychologists published a study in which they claimed that they had found neural correlates for nine very distinct human emotions: anger, disgust, envy, fear, happiness, lust, pride, sadness, and shame.

This is an intriguing trend for academics like Tiffany Watt Smith, a research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. "It's this idea that what we mean by 'emotion' has evolved," Smith tells Science of Us. "It's now a physical thing — you can see a location of it in the brain." And yet, of course, that's not all an emotion is; calling the amygdala the "fear center" of the brain offers little help in understanding what it means to be afraid.

It's exactly that — the subjective experience of emotions — that Smith explores in her charming new book, The Book of Human Emotions. It's a roundup of 154 words from around the world that you could call an exploration of "emotional granularity," as it provides language for some very specific emotions you likely never knew you had. "It's a long-held idea that if you put a name to a feeling, it can help that feeling become less overwhelming," she said. "All sorts of stuff that's swirling around and feeling painful can start to feel a bit more manageable," once you've pinned the feeling down and named it.


Holding space for ourselves expands our capacity to be there for others

The Importance of 'Being There' for Yourself

Most people would say they are good at supporting their friends and family, but why are we so bad at being there for ourselves?

When my second eldest daughter was a few months old, she developed colic. She would wake every night, crying for several hours, utterly inconsolable. Nothing I did helped her, not breastfeeding, holding her, rocking her, or my attempts to soothe her. Sometimes her cries pierced me so deeply I felt like giving up and leaving her alone. I felt so powerless.

Though it was difficult, my daughter taught me something vital and precious. As I watched her healing journey, I realised I cannot take away someone else's pain or rescue them. I cannot change what they are feeling, patch it up and move along. All I could do was witness, be there and be present for her. Yes I got frustrated, angry, and distraught that I couldn't do more, but eventually I found a place of calm as I sang mantras and focussed on staying peaceful in my own body. In learning to hold space for her, I learned to hold space for myself. In fact, I couldn't be present for her, without being present for myself. Her pain triggered my own deep pain, and I had to allow myself to move through it if I was going to help her.

It took the crumbling of a 13 year relationship to make me see how much of my energy goes into holding space for others; my four children, ex-partner, and those I work with in my teaching and healing practice. While I can hold space well for others, am sensitive and empathic, I recently realised again that there was a ceiling to this ability. In order to expand my capacity to be there for others, I needed to truly learn how to be there for myself. I was so focussed outwards, that I was neglecting the very thing that makes me solid and potent as a healing force for others: My own wellbeing.

Light Sabers

Road rage: Why normal people become harmful on the roads

© Ben Murray/Flickr, CC BY-SA
The roads are a common place to feel angry, but the most dangerous.
Anger can be very quick, powerful, reactive, and can make us do things we typically wouldn't do. There is nothing inherently wrong with anger as an emotion, but nowhere is anger less helpful, more common, and potentially more dangerous than when we are behind the wheel of a car.

Most of us are familiar with "road rage". There are, of course, extreme examples of violence and assaults on the roads that end up in the courts, hospitals, and the media. But every day, drivers get angry and aggressive, and the evidence is mounting that this can put themselves and others at great risk.

The science of road rage

Usually road rage is triggered by a specific event. These events will often involve the actions of another driver, such as a slow driver, a driver changing lanes without indicating, or other behaviours that we interpret as a threat or an obstacle.

Comment: The above tips are all excellent suggestions. And they don't just apply to driving, but by removing the word 'driver' from the listed items, would serve as great notes to live one's life by, moment to moment, in a more mindful, considerate and less egotistic way.

Stress and anger are a real part of life on planet Earth. If you'd like to gain more emotional balance, then take a few minutes to visit our website: eiriu-eolas.org. There you will find our free breathing and meditation programme scientifically designed to reduce stress and process past emotional trauma.


Narcissists steal their children's self-esteem

He watched his mother talk—about her hair, her friends, her car—for twenty minutes. When she paused for breath, he said: "I got promoted at work. They're sending me to—"

"Hey," she said. "Have you seen that new TV series about Brahms?"

"No," he sighed. "By the way, my friend Jed is going blind."

"That reminds me," she said. "I need new glasses."

He wanted to punch himself, but he did not know why.

Hearing the stories of those who were raised by narcissistic parents, knowing some such parents in the flesh, has sparked some of the fiercest loathing I have ever felt.

Comment: If you suspect that your parent is a narcissist it's best to research and know what you're dealing with and take steps to set very firm boundaries.


Musical training accelerates children's cognitive, social and emotional development

© woodleywonderworks, CC BY
How does music training in early childhood help the developing brain?
Observing a pianist at a recital - converting musical notations into precisely timed finger movements on a piano - can be a powerful emotional experience.

As a researcher of neuroscience and a pianist myself, I understand that the mastering of this skill not only takes practice, but also requires complex coordination of many different brain regions.

Brain regions - that are responsible for our hearing, sight and movement abilities - engage in an amazing symphony to produce music. It takes coordinating both hands and communicating emotionally with other players and listeners to produce the magical effect. The combination of such demands is likely to influence brain structures and their functions.

In our lab, we want to understand whether music training during childhood improves brain functions for processing sound more generally. These functions are important for the development of language and reading skills.

Music training and brain

Over the past two decades, several investigators have reported differences in the brain and behavior of musicians compared to nonmusicians.

Music training has been found to be related to better language and mathematical skills, higher IQ and overall greater academic achievement. Also, differences between musicians and nonmusicians have been found in areas of the brain related to hearing and movement, among others.

Comment: Read more about the powerful effects of music on our health and well-being :