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Wed, 22 Feb 2017
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


Gaslighting: An insidious form of emotional abuse

Once in a while, it's normal to have a fleeting moment where you question your own sanity, like when you're severely sleep deprived or stressed out. But if a relationship leaves you constantly second-guessing your own instincts and feelings, you may be a victim of a sophisticated form of emotional abuse: gaslighting. Like other types of abuse, gaslighting can happen in all sorts of relationships, including personal, romantic, and professional.

Ben Michaelis, PhD, a New York City-based clinical psychologist, has worked with victims of gaslighting. For one of his patients—we'll call her Marie—the gaslighting began when her husband shouted another woman's name during sex. When she tried to discuss the incident with him, he flatly denied what he'd said and told Marie she was hearing things. Marie figured she must have had too much to drink. But then the lying continued: Marie's husband would change his alibi constantly, and when Marie questioned him, he'd say she was acting delusional. It wasn't until almost a year later when Marie realized her husband had been hiding an affair the whole time.

"[Gaslighting] is like someone saying the sky is green over and over again, and at first you'll be like 'no, no,'" says Gail Saltz, MD a psychiatrist and host of the podcast The Power of Different. "Then over time the person starts to manipulate you into saying 'I guess I can't really see what color the sky is.' It's just this sense of unreality."

Comment: Many psychiatric professionals agree that even strong, intelligent, confident, and stable people can become vulnerable to this form of emotional manipulation. Intelligence and emotions are not the same thing and a gaslighters' key maneuver is to prey on emotion rather than intelligence. Gaslighting is a specific, conscious, deliberate tactic of manipulation and control.

People 2

Study finds happiness more reliant upon mental health and relationships than money

© kati / Global Look Press
The phrase "money can't buy happiness" may actually be true, according to a new study. The research found that mental illness and failed relationships are more damaging to a person's contentment than poverty.

The 'Origins of Happiness' study, conducted by a team of researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE), analyzed data from the US, UK, Germany, and Australia. It found that although average incomes have more than doubled over the past 50 years, people have not become any happier. Additionally, income inequality was found to explain just 1 percent of happiness variations.

Instead, the biggest single predictor of happiness was mental health, explaining over 4 percent of happiness variations.

The researchers found that eliminating depression and anxiety could reduce misery by 20 percent, compared to just 5 percent if poverty was alleviated.

"Tackling depression and anxiety would be four times as effective as tackling poverty," report co-author Richard Layard said, as quoted by the Guardian.


Is self-control just empathy with your future self?

The same part of the brain that allows us to step into the shoes of others also helps us restrain ourselves.

You've likely seen the video before: a stream of kids, confronted with a single, alluring marshmallow. If they can resist eating it for 15 minutes, they'll get two. Some do. Others cave almost immediately.

This "Marshmallow Test," first conducted in the 1960s, perfectly illustrates the ongoing war between impulsivity and self-control. The kids have to tamp down their immediate desires and focus on long-term goals—an ability that correlates with their later health, wealth, and academic success, and that is supposedly controlled by the front part of the brain. But a new study by Alexander Soutschekat the University of Zurich suggests that self-control is also influenced by another brain region—and one that casts this ability in a different light.

Press your right index finger to the top of your right ear, where it meets your head. Now move up an inch and back an inch. You're now pointing at your right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ). This area has long been linked to empathy and selflessness. But Soutschek, by using magnetic fields to briefly shut down the rTPJ, has shown that it's also involved in self-control.


The wondrous effects of music on the aging brain

Music predates language and speaks to us on a primal level. Thinking back to your adolescence, you probably associate key memories with the soundtracks that played during these formative years.

Before this, music likely began shaping your reality during infancy — there's even evidence that babies respond to music while still in the womb. At the other end of the spectrum, elderly people, too, including those struggling with degenerative conditions, come alive again when they hear their favorite tunes.

"What is it about music that moves us so intensely and directly, and how can it be employed in the treatment of neurological and physical disorders?" Such are the questions answered and explored in the above documentary, "Music on the Brain."

Miraculous Results Simply by Sharing Music With Dementia Patients

In the later stages of Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, patients often become moody and withdrawn. They may forget events as well as their own personal history, leading to a loss of identity and self.

The simple act of listening to music may help people with Alzheimer's to reconnect with the people around them and even remember past life events, which is why the non-profit organization Music & Memory has made this their mission.

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Parts of brain regions cycle in and out of sleep, even when you're awake

© Elena Kallis
When we're in a deep sleep, our brain's activity ebbs and flows in big, obvious waves. New research from Stanford has found that those same cycles exist when we're awake as well, with tiny portions of the brain independently falling asleep and waking back up all the time.

According to the study, published December 1, 2016 in Science, when neurons in the brain cycle into the more active, or on state, they are better at responding to the world. Neurons, specialized cells that conduct electrical impulses, are the basic data processing units, the 'chips', of the brain.

The team used special super-sensitive probes that could record activity from a column of neurons in the brain. In the past, people had known that individual neurons go through phases of being more or less active, but with this probe the researchers saw for the first time that all the neurons in a given column cycled together between firing very rapidly then firing at a much slower rate, similar to coordinated cycles in sleep.

Kwabena Boahen is a professor of bioengineering and electrical engineering at Stanford and a senior author on the paper. Boahen said:
During an on state the neurons all start firing rapidly. Then all of a sudden they just switch to a low firing rate. This on and off switching is happening all the time, as if the neurons are flipping a coin to decide if they are going to be on or off.
Those cycles - which happen in seconds or fractions of seconds - weren't as visible in the awake brain because the wave doesn't propagate much beyond that column of neurons, unlike during sleep when the wave spreads across almost the entire brain and is easy to detect.

Eye 1

Illusion reveals that the brain fills in peripheral vision

© Association for Psychological Science
What we see in the periphery, just outside the direct focus of the eye, may sometimes be a visual illusion, according to new findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The findings suggest that even though our peripheral vision is less accurate and detailed than what we see in the center of the visual field, we may not notice a qualitative difference because our visual processing system actually fills in some of what we "see" in the periphery.

"Our findings show that, under the right circumstances, a large part of the periphery may become a visual illusion," says psychology researcher Marte Otten from the University of Amsterdam, lead author on the new research.

"This effect seems to hold for many basic visual features, indicating that this 'filling in' is a general, and fundamental, perceptual mechanism."

As we go about daily life, we generally operate under the assumption that our perception of the world directly and accurately represents the outside world. But visual illusions of various kinds show us that this isn't always the case. As the brain processes incoming information about an external stimulus, we come to learn, it creates a representation of the outside world that can diverge from reality in noticeable ways.

Otten and colleagues wondered whether this same process might explain why we usually feel as though our peripheral vision is detailed and robust when it isn't.

"Perhaps our brain fills in what we see when the physical stimulus is not rich enough," she explains. "The brain represents peripheral vision with less detail, and these representations degrade faster than central vision. Therefore, we expected that peripheral vision should be very susceptible to illusory visual experiences, for many stimuli and large parts of the visual field."

Book 2

Move over Freud: Literary fiction is the best therapy

© Allstar/Propoganda Films
Books and bonds … Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in the 1996 film adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady.
One of my maxims as a university teacher of literature was: "A great novel not only enhances our understanding - more crucially it understands us." When I later trained as a psychoanalyst I annoyed my tutors with my refrain that one could learn more about the subtleties of human psychology from literature than from the works of Freud, Adler or Jung. This was not to decry the pioneering wisdoms of those great psychologists, but years of teaching literature convinced me that fiction trumps theory in its illumination of the hidden recesses of our consciousness.

There is now good evidence for the therapeutic effects of reading. The Shared Reading project, organised by the Reader Organisation, suggests that reading in groups - in their case they bring together groups of people with mental health issues for example, but the findings apply as well to the local book club's monthly gathering with added wine - significantly "improves self-confidence and self-esteem, builds social networks, widens horizons and gives people a sense of belonging, preserving the mental and physical health of those who are well and building mental resilience".

Comment: See also:


This is your brain on God: Spiritual experiences activate brain reward circuits

© Jeffrey Anderson
An fMRI scan shows regions of the brain that become active when devoutly religious study participants have a spiritual experience, including a reward center in the brain, the nucleus accumbens.
Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music, report researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine. The findings will be published Nov. 29 in the journal Social Neuroscience.

"We're just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent," says senior author and neuroradiologist Jeff Anderson. "In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia."

Specifically, the investigators set out to determine which brain networks are involved in representing spiritual feelings in one group, devout Mormons, by creating an environment that triggered participants to "feel the Spirit." Identifying this feeling of peace and closeness with God in oneself and others is a critically important part of Mormons' lives -- they make decisions based on these feelings; treat them as confirmation of doctrinal principles; and view them as a primary means of communication with the divine.

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Community groups keep us mentally sharp as we age

© unknown
Being part of a social network might help us keep our brains in top gear.
According to a large, longitudinal study, being part of a community group could help prevent the cognitive decline associated with age. The current findings add further evidence that social engagement is good for the mind.

Earlier research has hinted that having a strong social network, integrating socially, and engaging with others is associated with better cognitive outcomes.

Similarly, community opportunities - such as recreational, social, and leisure activities and voluntary and group work - are all linked with higher levels of well-being and lower mental stress.

These types of so-called social capital opportunities also reduce overall stress, isolation, and loneliness.

Being involved in civic groups - such as neighborhood watch, environmental groups, voluntary service groups, and other community-based groups - seems to be a healthful option.

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Light Sabers

From 'fascists' to 'feminazis': How both sides of politics are biased in their political thinking

© Shutterstock
Individuals from both sides of politics will refuse to accept evidence that contradicts their beliefs.
Any frequent user of social media is probably aware of the tendency for both sides of politics to view the other as fundamentally immoral and ignorant.

Interestingly, longitudinal data suggests that political polarisation is intensifying, at least in the United States, with the recent US election seeing partisanship reach an all-time high.

One important contributor to this phenomenon is confirmation bias: the tendency to seek or interpret evidence as supporting our pre-existing beliefs, regardless of whether it really does.

There is also research showing that confirmation bias is particularly active when the evidence at hand threatens the validity of our political worldview.

Comment: See also: