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Tue, 23 May 2017
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


Reconnecting with nature makes us healthier & happier

© The Mind Well
Over 100 studies have shown that being in nature—or even watching it in videos—benefits our brains, bodies, feelings, thought processes, and social interactions.

Humans have long intuited that being in nature is good for the mind and body. From indigenous adolescents completing rites of passage in the wild to modern East Asian cultures taking "forest baths," many have looked to nature as a place for healing and personal growth.

Why nature? No one knows for sure; but one hypothesis derived from evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson's "biophilia" theory suggests that there are evolutionary reasons people seek out nature experiences. We may have preferences to be in beautiful, natural spaces because they are resource-rich environments—ones that provide optimal food, shelter, and comfort. These evolutionary needs may explain why children are drawn to natural environments and why we prefer nature to be part of our architecture.

Now, a large body of research is documenting the positive impacts of nature on human flourishing—our social, psychological, and emotional life. Over 100 studies have shown that being in nature, living near nature, or even viewing nature in paintings and videos can have positive impacts on our brains, bodies, feelings, thought processes, and social interactions. In particular, viewing nature seems to be inherently rewarding, producing a cascade of positive emotions and calming our nervous systems. These in turn help us to cultivate greater openness, creativity, connection, generosity, and resilience.

Comment: Researchers find that walking in a forest optimizes natural immunity


'The Tell-Tale Brain': Interview with neurologist V.S. Ramachandran

© Mads Abildgaard/iStockphoto.com

Our next guest, V.M.(ph) Ramachandran, is known for thinking about the mysteries of the human brain in creative ways. In his new book, for example, he seeks to understand why a man in the hospital with a brain injury could speak to his father on the telephone, but was unable to recognize him or speak when his father entered the room.

Ramachandran's research combines modern advances in neuroscience with low-tech, common-sense approaches, as you'll soon hear. His new book looks at unusual cases of brain dysfunction for clues about how the brain works, and he explores evolutionary explorations for the brain's complex wiring in what he calls a quest for what makes us human.

V.M. Ramachandran is the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and distinguished professor with the psychology department and neurosciences program at the University of California San Diego. He's the author of "Phantoms in the Brain." His new book is called "The Tell-Tale Brain."

Well, V.S. Ramachandran, welcome to Fresh Air. Let's begin by talking about some of this amazing work you've done with mirror visual feedback, and this involves people who have had an amputation, but who feel a phantom limb. First of all, explain that phenomenon, what happens to people sometimes - when they're sometimes missing a limb and they feel these things.

Comment: Mind Reading: Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran on 'Unlearning' Pain

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The link between patience, willpower and imagination

How often do you act impulsively without considering the consequences? What if you could learn how to be more patient?

By using functional MRI (fMRI) to look inside the brain, neuroscientists Adrianna Jenkins, a UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher, and Ming Hsu, an associate professor of marketing and neuroscience at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, found that imagination is a pathway toward patience. Imagining an outcome before acting upon an impulse may help increase patience without relying on increased willpower.

Scientists call this technique, "framing effects," or making small changes to how options are presented or framed. And the method may increase a person's ability to exercise patience.

The findings can be found in Jenkins and Hsu's study, "Dissociable contributions of imagination and willpower to the malleability of human patience," forthcoming in Psychological Science.

Magic Wand

Beyond spirituality: Meditation for mental health

© Tezatrataz/Phra Ajan Jerapunyo Abbot of Watkungtaphao
Long-term meditators have larger sections of the brain responsible for regulating emotion.
Meditation has traditionally been associated with Eastern mysticism but science is beginning to show that cultivating a "heightened" state of consciousness can have a major impact on our brain, the way our bodies function and our levels of resilience.

Clinicians are increasingly looking for effective, preventative, non-pharmacological options to treat mental illness. And meditation techniques - such as quietening the mind, understanding the self and exercising control - show promise as an alternative tool to regulate emotions, mood and stress.

Comment: Read more about Reshaping your brain with meditation
  • Brain Scans Prove Meditation "Effective in Curing Mental Illness"
  • The Éiriú Eolas Stress Control, Healing and Rejuvenation Program is a form of breathing and meditation techniques designed to be both informative, effective and life changing! Interested in learning more about the numerous benefits of a breathing and meditation program like Éiriú Eolas? Check out the program here and try it today!


Guts, brains, and hormones: The role of inflammation in depression

When a woman experiences fatigue, brain clouding, flat mood, PMS, and constipation, we call it anxiety or stress and we stick her on an antidepressant that she will likely take for the rest of her life. Where in this protocol have we investigated why she is feeling that way? How have we personalized the treatment to her unique biochemistry? What is the plan for side effects including new and different psychiatric symptoms resulting from this prescription? We haven't. We've applied a one-size-fits all treatment to mask symptoms without consideration for the cause.

The Immune System and Depression

Psychiatry has known about the role of the immune system in certain presentations of depression for the better part of the last century, and more recently, pioneering thinkers like Maes, Raison, and Miller have written about the role of altered immune set points and inflammation in models of depression. Our immune systems are largely housed in the gut and the interplay between the gut and the brain is a complex and profoundly important relationship to appreciate.

We all recognize that anxiety or nervousness can impact our guts - most of us have had butterflies before a date or even diarrhea with extreme performance anxiety? We are just learning that this relationship is bidirectional; however, and that the gut can also communicate its state of calm or alarm to the nervous system. We think that the vagus nerve is a primary conduit of information and that inflammatory markers are the vehicles traveling this highway. Scientists have studied the "protective effects" of severing this nerve when animals are exposed to gut-related toxins that normally cause depressive symptoms. We are getting ahead of ourselves; however, because we need to better elucidate why inflammation matters, where it comes from, and why it is the universal driver of chronic illness.


How writing about negative experiences helps you move past them

James Pennebaker, a distinguished professor at the University of Texas, got married right out of college in the early 70s. Three years after his marriage, he and his wife started to question their relationship, and Pennebaker, confused and unsettled, sank into a depression. He ate less, drank more, and started smoking. Embarrassed by what he saw as emotional weakness, he became more and more isolated.

One morning about a month into this decline, Pennebaker climbed out of bed and sat down at a typewriter. He stared at the machine for a moment, then started writing freely and frankly about his marriage, his parents, his sexuality, his career, and even death.


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Intuition can lessen the influence of cognitive biases

© tinou bao/Flickr
Cognitive biases impact all your perceptions and decisions. All of them.
Professionals like to talk with pride about how they make "data-driven" decisions. They express faith in logic and disciplined analysis. Many scoff at others who confess to trusting their gut and going with their intuition.

Today, I'd like to ask a question to all of you highly analytical decision makers:

How do you adjust for the 175 cognitive biases that tend to push all human beings away from rational decisions?

To save time, you don't have to explain to me - or even to yourself - exactly how you compensate for all 175 biases. Since you are a rational, data-driven decision maker, I assume you have memorized all 175 and you have a unique and effective strategy for dealing with each one. But to refresh your memory, please just take a minute and mentally review your strategy for seven of them I've listed here (all taken from this Wikipedia page):

Automation bias: The tendency to depend excessively on automated systems which can lead to erroneous automated information overriding correct decisions.

Comment: See also:


From decapitation to positive psychology: How the vagus nerve connects body, brain & mind

© Shutterstock
The vagus nerve, part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
The relationship between mind, brain and body has kept philosophers and scientists busy for centuries. Some of the first interesting - albeit gruesome - experiments on the role of the body in human consciousness considered life after decapitation.

In 1905, French physician Dr Gabriel Beaurieux believed he had communicated with prisoner Henri Languille after his head had been severed from his body. Writing of the experience, Beaurieux said:
I called in a strong, sharp voice: "Languille!" I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions - I insist advisedly on this peculiarity - but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.
Almost two decades later, Soviet scientist Sergei Brukhonenko reportedly kept a dog's severed head alive for nearly six months using a primitive heart-lung machine. Video footage allegedly shows the head responding to light, sound and citric acid stimuli. But while Brukhonenko's research may have been an important in the development of cardiac surgery - it is also regarded as faked Soviet-era propaganda.

Comment: Read more Nervy facts about the vagus nerve - which looks at how the vagus nerve affects body and mind together: Stimulate the vagus nerve naturally with the Éiriú Eolas Stress Control, Healing and Rejuvenation Program, check out the online program available for free here


Protecting the brain from the effects of daily screen time

© EtiAmmos/Fotolia
I've written elsewhere how screen-time stresses and detunes the body clock, brain chemistry, and reward pathways, as well as how tech addiction can actually damage the brain's frontal lobe. I've also shared how an electronic fast can reset and resynchronize the nervous system, improving a child's mood, sleep, focus and behavior in a matter of weeks.

In contrast, this post offers evidence-based practices to buffer against some of the changes seen with overstimulation from screen-time. These methods either counteract screen-time's effects directly (such as by helping to synchronize, strengthen, or protect the body clock) or indirectly (for example by facilitating deeper sleep or discharging pent up energy). While this information was originally written with children in mind, these principles apply to adults, too!

Comment: Other useful techniques that can help to disconnect from our always-on tech world:


Undead theories: The sorry state of modern psychology

Science is embattled in a raging replication crisis, in which researchers are unable to reproduce a number of key findings. On the front lines of this conflict is psychology. In a 2015 review of 98 original psychology papers, just 36 percent of attempted replications returned significant results, whereas 97 percent of the original studies did.

"Don't trust everything you read in the psychology literature," reporter Monya Baker warned. "In fact, two thirds of it should probably be distrusted."

How did psychology reach such a sorry state of affairs? Back in 2012, when the replication crisis was just beginning to gain prominence in the popular media, psychology professors Moritz Heene and Christopher Ferguson, respectively from Ludwig Maximilian University and Stetson University, offered a blunt, upsetting hypothesis: The field is sliding towards a state of being unfalsifiable, and its adherents either don't notice or don't seem to care.

Comment: Some of the biggest problems facing science
Scientists say they're forced to prioritize self-preservation over pursuing the best questions and uncovering meaningful truths.

Today, scientists' success often isn't measured by the quality of their questions or the rigor of their methods. It's instead measured by how much grant money they win, the number of studies they publish, and how they spin their findings to appeal to the public.

Scientists often learn more from studies that fail. But failed studies can mean career death. So instead, they're incentivized to generate positive results they can publish. And the phrase "publish or perish" hangs over nearly every decision. It's a nagging whisper, like a Jedi's path to the dark side
See also: Corruption of science: Nearly all scientific papers controlled by same six corporations