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Fri, 24 Feb 2017
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Science of the Spirit


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.


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.


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


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."


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.


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:


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.


The philosophical musings of Bruce Lee

You will never get any more out of life than you expect. — Bruce Lee
Although Bruce Lee is best known for his legendary legacy in martial arts and film, he was also one of the most under appreciated philosophers of the twentieth century, instrumental in introducing Eastern traditions to Western audiences.

A philosophy major in college, he fused ancient ideas with his own singular ethos informed by the intersection of physical and psychological discipline, the most famous manifestation of which is his water metaphor for resilience.

Early in his career, Lee was systematically sidelined by Hollywood's studio system, which operated with extreme racial bias and still used white actors to portray stereotypical Asian characters. Over and over, Lee was told in no uncertain terms that white audiences simply wouldn't accept an Asian man as a lead character in a movie.


Why you should care less about what (most) other people think

© Getty

Part 1: Meet Your Mammoth

The first day I was in second grade, I came to school and noticed that there was a new, very pretty girl in the class—someone who hadn't been there the previous two years. Her name was Alana and within an hour, she was everything to me.

When you're seven, there aren't really any actionable steps you can take when you're in love with someone. You're not even sure what you want from the situation. There's just this amorphous yearning that's a part of your life, and that's that.

But for me, it became suddenly relevant a few months later, when during recess one day, one of the girls in the class started asking each of the boys, "Who do youuu want to marry?" When she asked me, it was a no-brainer. "Alana."


I was still new to being a human and didn't realize that the only socially acceptable answer was, "No one."


Breath of life: The scientific health benefits of controlled breathing

According to ancient yogic texts, our vital life force —our Prana or our breath — derives from Pranayama, the practice of controlled breathing. Science is finally starting to catch up to the knowledge outlined in the Vedas, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and other ancient texts.

Meditation has been practiced for the past 5,000 years on Earth, yet science is only now starting to recognize and understand the significant health benefits it has on the human body. These benefits can be observed while meditating and can be seen during the day-to-day lives of regular meditators as well.

Comment: Deep Breathing Exercises Can Improve Your Life