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Tue, 21 Feb 2017
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


The downside of 'empathy': Blindly feeling others' feelings distorts reasoning, makes us biased, tribal, and even cruel

Everywhere you turn in American politics, leaders talk about the need for empathy. The best-known instance, of course, comes from Bill Clinton, who told an AIDS activist in 1992, "I feel your pain." But it's also been a recurrent theme in the career of Barack Obama, who declared in 2007 (while still a senator) that "the biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit."

And it isn't just a liberal reflex. A few months ago, George W. Bush spoke at a memorial service in Dallas for five slain police officers and said, "At our best, we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others." As a candidate, even Donald Trump asked Americans to identify with the suffering of others, from displaced Rust Belt factory workers to the victims of crime by undocumented immigrants.

Though there are obvious ideological differences over who deserves our empathy, it is one of the rare political sentiments that still command a wide consensus. And that's a shame, because when it comes to guiding our decisions, empathy is a moral train wreck. It makes the world worse. When we have the good sense to set it aside, we are better people and make better policy.

Comment: Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski differentiates between automatic, reflexive "syntony" (feeling something in common with others), and conscious, reflective empathy. As Bloom demonstrates above, the first is fickle, unreliable, and can lead to contradictory results. It also leads to a kind of 'mob' mentality in groups. But the second has all the advantages of the first, without the drawbacks:
We observe more alterocentric ['other'-centered], unselfish attitudes expressed by readiness to help; we observe more consistent sensitivity towards the needs of others forsaking primitive selfishness. This attitude is characterized by more or less strong participation of thoughtfulness and reflection. This is empathy. ... Typical examples are: a tendency to defend others, a heart‑warming attitude, understanding, and the like, which are accompanied by reflection and critical evaluation. (Dabrowski, 1970, Mental Growth Through Positive Disintegration)

Magic Wand

Mindfulness tips to reduce anxiety

Have you ever had your heart race, palms become sweaty, or have difficulty focusing because you're so nervous? These are some of the signs of anxiety.

Anxiety can be debilitating for some people, and for others it might just amount to a few minutes of feeling nervous.

Unfortunately, for some people when anxiety does hit, it can cause you to freeze and be unable to focus, respond, or engage in everyday tasks. For most people, anxiety is the result of thinking about something out of your control, or of something in the future.

Jon Kabat-Zinn PhD, is the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). According to Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is "paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment."


Improve mental health by knitting, crocheting & jam making

Women knit clothing for London evacuees in during the Second World War
Knitting, crocheting and jam-making have never been associated with great thrills - but, it turns out, they work wonders for wellbeing.

A study has found that people who participate in arts and crafts feel happier, calmer and more energetic the next day.

The activities which the researchers listed also included cooking, baking, performing music, painting, drawing, sketching, digital design and creative writing.

All have in common that they are relaxed and creative.

Many of the more traditional activities cited by the researchers are popular with Women's Institute members.

Janice Langley, chairman of the National Federation of Women's Institutes, told the Daily Mail: "WI members have enjoyed creative activities and crafts since the very first WI meeting in 1915, so it's great to hear this study has found some evidence that these interests could lead to increased wellbeing and creativity. We'd encourage everyone thinking of giving a new project a try just to get involved."

Comment: Why crafting helps your brain
Here are 10 ways crafting with friends may improve mind and brain wellness:
  1. Mental challenge and problem solving
  2. Social connection
  3. Mindfulness
  4. Development of hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness and fine motor dexterity
  5. Learning and teaching
  6. Focusing attention and thoughts on a task

  7. Encouraging active creativity
  8. Gives a sense of pride and achievement
  9. Teaches patience and perseverance
  10. Facilitates memory formation and retrieval
According to her paper, "The skills and feelings experienced whilst knitting and stitching can also be used to facilitate the learning of techniques, such as meditation, relaxation and pacing which are commonly taught on pain management courses, or in the treatment of depression."


Distorted thinking increases stress & anxiety

I learned about cognitive distortions in the 1990s from a book by David Burns called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. I'd just moved from the faculty wing at U.C. Davis' law school to serve as the dean of students. I knew how to teach law...but I didn't feel competent to help students who were struggling emotionally.

When I shared my concerns with a therapist friend, she recommended Feeling Good. She said it would help me recognize when students were engaged in distorted thinking patterns that were increasing their stress and anxiety. I don't know who benefitted more from the book: the students or me personally!

Many years later, after I became chronically ill, I found the notes I'd taken on ten cognitive distortions that Burns discusses in Feeling Good. I immediately realized that I had a new life challenge to apply them to. I'm indebted to him for this piece. I'll describe each cognitive distortion and then include a suggestion or two for how to counter it.

Of course, before you can counter distorted thinking, you have to become aware that you're engaging in it. To this end, it might be beneficial to make a list of the ten distortions and then look it over every few days. Or, you could write down some of your stressful and anxious thoughts and then look to see which of the ten distortions they fall under.


Hikikomori: Shut-ins and the state of mental health in Japan

© Nazra Zahri/Getty Images
They're called hikikomori: the 541,000 people across Japan between ages 15 and 39 who live as shut-ins. The Japanese government defines them as people who have stayed at home for at least six months and haven't had any social interactions beyond their family, Maiko Takahashi reports for Bloomberg.

Linguistically, the word a combination of the hiku,or "draw, pull" and komoru, or"seclude oneself." The standard definition is "acute social withdrawal." The phenomenon was first identified in 1978 as "withdrawal neurosis," then further described by Japanese psychiatrists in the 1990s, before turning into a subject of national and international interest in the 2000s, being added to the Oxford English Dictionary as a loanword in 2010.

Now, Takahashi reports, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to mobilize the nation's shut-ins to contribute the world's third-largest economy as it faces a massive population drop. From a health perspective, that kind of self-enforced solitude is brutal: American researchers have found that loneliness poses an increase of risk in mortality comparable to obesity.

Comment: Doesn't seem that there is much of a reason to leave the house.


Use of social technology can keep the elderly connected

The answer may surprise you, but it's not the teens, twenty or thirty somethings that are benefiting the most from the incredible rise of social media. It's our elders and those over 80 who are more likely to report mental and physical well-being, according to Stanford research.

"Being socially connected is our brain's lifelong passion," said Matthew Lieberman, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science. "It's been baked into our operating system for tens of millions of years." Research suggests that the elderly are more likely to remember information when they take it in socially.

"Critics say that people might not be able to connect with others as well as they used to because of the spread of new technologies," said Tamara Sims, a research scientist at the Stanford Center on Longevity. "But there really is this bright side of technology, especially for older people, who may not have the opportunity to connect with many family members to the extent they want to due to physical limitations or geographical separation."

Our social nature is so powerful that it even may dictate how effective we are in developing new innovations and producing major societal changes. We are wired to see things and think how it can assist others.

The study specifically found that adults over the age of 80 were likely to report using technology because it helps them connect with friends and family. They also found that those who reported using technology to primarily connect with loved ones reported higher mental well-being. Those who said they used technology mostly to learn new information reported being more physically fit.

People 2

Signs that you lack emotional intelligence, and tips on getting better

When emotional intelligence (EQ) first appeared to the masses, it served as the missing link in a peculiar finding: people with average IQs outperform those with the highest IQs 70% of the time. This anomaly threw a massive wrench into the broadly held assumption that IQ was the sole source of success.

Decades of research now point to emotional intelligence as being the critical factor that sets star performers apart from the rest of the pack. The connection is so strong that 90% of top performers have high emotional intelligence.
"No doubt emotional intelligence is more rare than book smarts, but my experience says it is actually more important in the making of a leader. You just can't ignore it." - Jack Welch
Emotional intelligence is the "something" in each of us that is a bit intangible. It affects how we manage behavior, navigate social complexities, and make personal decisions to achieve positive results.

Comment: If we're honest, pretty much all of us would do well to practice the above habits more. One other very important one, only half touched on in the above, is to simply get out of your own head more and make more of an effort to understand other people.

Alarm Clock

Science confirms: Do not go to bed angry

Participants found it much harder to suppress memories after sleep, the study found.
A good night's sleep may reinforce negative memories in the brain, researchers said on Tuesday, lending scientific credence to the time-worn caution against going to bed angry.

Slipping into slumber while holding on to a freshly-formed bad memory engraves it in the brain, making it harder to shake off later, a team from China and the United States reported in the journal Nature Communications.

"This study suggests that there is certain merit in this age-old advice: 'Do not go to bed angry'," study co-author Yunzhe Liu, who conducted the research at Beijing Normal University, told AFP.

"We would suggest to first resolve (the) argument before... bed."

Liu and colleagues used 73 male college students to test the impact of sleep on memory.

The participants were trained over two days to associate specific images with negative memories.


Religious ecstacy not much different than sex, drugs & music to the brain

© Getty
The stiumlation of God be a similar rush to listening to music or having sex, a study finds.
The brains of people who feel God's spirit are stimulated in a similar way to the more earthly desires of enjoying drugs, music, gambling and sex, scientists have revealed.

Researchers used MRI scans to look into the brains of Mormons experiencing religious ecstasy.

Scientists from the University of Utah in the U.S. enlisted 19 church-going teenagers to take part in an hour long "exam" with four parts for the study.

The scientists recorded their reactions and studied the parts of the brain stimulated.

This included six minutes of rest, six minutes of a video detailing their church's membership statistics, eight minutes of quotations by Mormon and world religious leaders, eight minutes of reading familiar passages from the Book of Mormon, 12 minutes of church-produced video of family and Biblical scenes and another eight minutes of quotations.

Comment: Religion, drugs affect brain similarly:
Being "high" on Christ and life seems take on a whole new meaning. What about the devout and other deeply religious people, are they addicted? It's certainly possible. John Bradshaw, a former cocaine addict and now self-help guru and evangelical, equated the two experiences' effect on dopamine levels. Dopamine, a chemical produced naturally in the body, plays a key role in pleasure, mood and addiction to other foreign drugs. Cocaine and nicotine employ it to encourage the user to continue use, and now prayer and meditation have been found to raise dopamine levels. Calling out the devout as "addicts" may seem extreme, but when taking into account their commitment to their faith, reliance on scripture and a compelling urge to continue to partake in religious ceremonies, it certainly is not a far leap.


Returning with a fresh perspective: Near-death experiences in intensive care units

I've been reading Near Death in the ICU, by Laurin Bellg, MD, and finding a lot of fascinating material in it. But before I present some examples, I need to offer a caveat. At the beginning, the author says she has done her best to conceal the identities of the patients and family members in the stories told here. That's understandable, but she goes on to say that in some cases she has even created composite stories based on two or more episodes blended together.

I'm not entirely happy about that approach, since it necessarily means blurring the details of individual accounts and suggesting a more elaborate experience than any one person may have reported. Personally, I think that when it comes to NDE accounts, composites should be avoided and the details should be changed as little as possible.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of good stuff here, and I have no reason to doubt the general accuracy of what's being reported. Much of it is consistent with other NDE accounts, but told from a fresh perspective.

One common thread involves seeing a spiritual being (or more than one) in the form of a glowing point of light or a luminous orb. Another feature in common in several accounts is the patient's relocation to an ethereal space of perfect peace.

Comment: See also: