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Fri, 22 Nov 2019
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Science of the Spirit


Seneca on the antidote to anxiety

"The truth is, we know so little about life, we don't really know what the good news is and what the bad news is,"

Kurt Vonnegut observed in discussing Hamlet during his influential lecture on the shapes of stories. "The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it's really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad," Alan Watts wrote a generation earlier in his sobering case for learning not to think in terms of gain or loss. And yet most of us spend swaths of our days worrying about the prospect of events we judge to be negative, potential losses driven by what we perceive to be "bad news." In the 1930s, one pastor itemized anxiety into five categories of worries, four of which imaginary and the fifth, "worries that have a real foundation," occupying "possibly 8% of the total."

A twenty-four-hour news cycle that preys on this human propensity has undeniably aggravated the problem and swelled the 8% to appear as 98%, but at the heart of this warping of reality is an ancient tendency of mind so hard-wired into our psyche that it exists independently of external events. The great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examined it, and its only real antidote, with uncommon insight in his correspondence with his friend Lucilius Junior, later published as Letters from a Stoic — the timeless trove of wisdom that gave us Seneca on true and false friendship and the mental discipline of overcoming fear.

Comment: Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius - timeless stoic philosophy that is essential to the human spirit


The dancing species - how moving together in time helps make us human

© Photo by Kate Holt/Flickr
Dancers in traditional dress, Kenya.
Dancing is a human universal, but why? It is present in human cultures old and new; central to those with the longest continuous histories; evident in the earliest visual art on rock walls from France to South Africa to the Americas, and enfolded in the DNA of every infant who invents movements in joyful response to rhythm and song, long before she can walk, talk or think of herself as an 'I'. Dancing remains a vital, generative practice around the globe into the present in urban neighbourhoods, on concert stages, as part of healing rituals and in political revolutions. Despite efforts waged by Christian European and American colonists across six continents over 500 years to eradicate indigenous dance traditions and to marginalise dancing within their own societies, dancing continues wherever humans reside. Any answer to the question of why humans dance must explain its ubiquity and tenacity. In so doing, any answer will challenge Western notions of human being that privilege mind over body as the seat of agency and identity.

Comment: Get off your duff and shake your stuff: The health benefits of dancing


Nature heals: Viewing green spaces linked to more positive mindset and reduced cravings for harmful substances

Nature healing, green spaces

Spending more time outdoors has long been linked to a more positive mindset, but now a study has concluded that just seeing greenery on a day-to-day basis can put us in a better mindset and reduce harmful cravings.
So much of modern life happens indoors. From offices to apartments or homes, most people in today's day and age find themselves cooped up inside for most of the day. Spending more time outdoors has long been linked to a more positive mindset, but now a study has concluded that just seeing greenery on a day-to-day basis can put us in a better mindset and reduce harmful cravings for substances such as alcohol, cigarettes, and junk food.

According to the study out of the University of Plymouth, being able to see greenery and nature from your home will lead to less frequent, and intense cravings. The research builds off of previous work that has established a link between exercising outdoors and reduced cravings, but the study's authors assert that exercise isn't necessary to reap the benefits of nature.

The study is the first of its kind, and its authors say their findings stress the need for cities and communities the world over to invest in and protect public green spaces.

Comment: More on the benefits of nature:

Monkey Wrench

How to stop emotional eating as a coping mechanism

slef talk
I once knew a very heavy man (let's call him Johnny) who ate a half dozen frankfurters whenever he felt too angry, lonely, depressed, anxious, or upset. Unfortunately he felt this way often and believed his frankfurter feasts were necessary to "cope" with these feelings. Johnny thoroughly enjoyed the frankfurters, but was extremely unhappy about his weight, as were his doctors. So he came to me for better coping tools.

Initially, I gave Johnny exactly what he asked for. I showed him some breathing techniques to help deactivate the sympathetic nervous system, which plays a strong role in producing the feeling one must urgently act on the impulse to overeat. I also helped him more specifically label his emotions so he might gain more of a sense of control. But once I'd given Johnny what he asked for, I also explained he might be approaching the entire issue with the wrong mindset.

See, if you consider emotional upset to be a "fire", then Johnny's paradigm was "I must put it out!" But if you think about it, you can have a very intense fire in your living room and, as long as it's contained by an effective fireplace, that fire actually becomes the center of hearth and home. People gather around the fireplace with a roaring fire, share stories, and make memories. It's only when there's a hole in the fireplace which allows sparks and embers to escape that the fire becomes dangerous. Similarly, it's only when emotions are allowed to "jump" out of the fireplace and become actual behavior that damage to your health is done, and this only happens when some type of rational justification makes it "OK" to act against your previously best laid plans.


Singing can create cohesion: Why the community that sings together stays together

© CoD Newsroom/Flickr
At the Illinois American Choral Directors Association conference.
In Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), the movie about the British band Queen, the scene that sticks in my mind depicts the Live Aid concert in London in 1985. Queen belt out their best-loved songs and the crowd is singing along, swaying, clapping and stamping its feet. I could empathise a potent sense of togetherness in the audience, a feeling of cohesion between thousands of fans, coming not only from a shared enjoyment of watching the band but, more importantly, from being part of the music-making. It's no wonder that the film shows the Live Aid donations start to climb during this set: we know that social bonding is associated with more prosocial behaviour. As a researcher, I am interested in how and why this sense of solidity from singing comes about.

Singing is universal. It is found in all cultures and, despite protestations of tone deafness, the vast majority of people can sing. Singing also often occurs in collective contexts: think about sports stadiums, religious services and birthday celebrations. Given these two characteristics, my colleagues and I wondered whether singing is a behaviour that evolved to bond groups together.

Comment: Harmony: The neuroscience of singing


'Real world' knowledge: Bring back home economics - our kids lack basic life skills

home economics
There are a lot of complaints that what is being taught in schools is not very practical in the real world. And it's true.

Modern students can unravel complex mathematical problems, but still lack the skills to put together a meal, or do anything that helps them live as independent human beings.

Sure, parents can pitch in and pick up the slack, teaching their kids skills they do not get at school. But still, the education system can do a better job of preparing these students to survive in the real world.

While schools are perfectly fine letting kids decide what courses to take and allowing them to handle important career and life decisions, they forget to teach them simple life skills that can have a huge impact on their daily lives.

Comment: Additional helpful 'real world' knowledge: The most useful life skills every 20-something should master

SOTT Logo Radio

MindMatters: "Everybody Knows That!" - Mass Beliefs and the Ideas That Shape Them

everybody knows that
If you're human, then chances are you believe something that "everybody knows" to be true. And if you're a thinking human, then chances are you know that such beliefs can turn out to be not so true after all. Everybody knew saturated fat is bad for you, after all. But now they don't and the opposite is true. Fancy that! Whether it's beliefs, emotions, or behaviors, social contagion is a real thing, and it's the shared nature of these phenomena that hold communities together in one relatively cohesive whole. Good, bad, or ugly, we all have to deal with trends, fads, memes, and world views.

But every mass belief has to start somewhere. How do we account for the source of new ideas? If two or more people come up with the same new idea at the same time, with no knowledge of each other, how do we account for that? Coincidence? Or something more? On a more general level, where do ideas even come from? What is creativity? How to trends propagate? And what is it that gives them their stubborn power to resist change?

Tune in today to MindMatters, where we tackle the age-old conflict between stability and change, repetition and novelty, order and chaos - and the mass beliefs that hold them all together.

Running Time: 00:55:34

Download: MP3 — 50.9 MB


Cause of near-death experiences still unknown and controversial

Tunnel of Light
© Shutterstock
About 10% of people report having mystical "near-death experiences," such as out-of-body sensations, according to a new study involving participants from nearly three dozen countries.

What's more, although the exact cause of these experiences remains a mystery, the authors say the phenomenon may be tied to certain sleep abnormalities.

The study findings suggest there may be a connection between near-death experiences and disorders of REM sleep, a phase of the sleep cycle in which dreaming is vivid and people are typically paralyzed. The researchers found that near-death experiences were more likely to occur in people who also reported symptoms of REM sleep disorders, such as sleep paralysis (when people feel conscious but can't move) or hallucinations just before falling asleep.

One hypothesis is that the brains of people who have these experiences may blend two types of consciousness — waking and dreaming states, according to a researcher not involved in the new study.

Still, the new study only showed an association and cannot prove that such disorders — which the researchers refer to as "REM sleep intrusion into wakefulness" — can cause near-death experiences. But "identifying the physiological mechanisms behind REM sleep intrusion into wakefulness might advance our understanding of near-death experiences," study lead author Dr. Daniel Kondziella, a neurologist at the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement.

The study was presented on Saturday (June 29) at the European Academy of Neurology Congress in Oslo, Norway. It has also been posted to the preprint website bioRxiv. It has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.


Brain-to-brain network established by researchers in the US

Brain to brain network
A receiver (centre) and two senders ready to work their brains. Come game time, they were in separate rooms.
US computer engineers have reported creating a way for two people to help a third person solve a problem using only their minds.

It's called BrainNet and, the team from the University of Washington says, it is the first demonstration of two things: a brain-to-brain network of more than two people, and a person being able to both receive and send information to others using only their brain.

They acknowledge it's a baby step on the road to telepathic communication, but it's a step, nonetheless.

"Our equipment is still expensive and very bulky, and the task is a game," says corresponding author Rajesh Rao. "We're in the 'Kitty Hawk' days of brain interface technologies. We're just getting off the ground."

The game in question is much like the old-school computer favourite Tetris, involving manoeuvring blocks of varying shapes into position to follow a specific line as they fall from the top of the screen.

In the version Rao and colleagues devised, three people played the one game, while sitting in separate rooms. Two, called "senders", could see the blocks and the lines but couldn't control the game. The third, the "receiver", could see the blocks but not the lines, but could tell the game to rotate a block when necessary to complete a line.

All wore electroencephalography caps that picked up electrical activity in their brains.


New research shows racial bias has its roots in sensory perception

Racial Bias
© Adrian Nakic/Getty Images
Race biases extend as far down as our sensory processes, new research suggests.
People's tendency to perceive members of their own racial group as different to each other and folks from other races as more homogenous could start early in the perceptual process, a new US study has found.

Intergroup bias is a well established psychological phenomenon that can result in stereotyping and discrimination, with real-world impacts ranging from the embarrassment of mixing two people up to the seriousness of selecting the wrong suspect from a police line-up.

But its cause is poorly understood. Brent Hughes, from the University of California, Riverside, and colleagues asked, "Are such mistakes based in errors of recollection and judgement, or do they emerge in the very way that we perceive members of other social groups?"

To test this, they took neural functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of 20 white people aged around 20 years while exposing them to a large set of ingroup (white) faces and outgroup (black) faces that changed gradually in similarity from identical to different.