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Science of the Spirit


Psychopaths' Brains Wired to Seek Rewards, No Matter the Consequences

psychopathic brain
© Gregory R.Samanez-Larkin and Joshua W. Buckholtz
Abnormalities in how the nucleus accumbens, highlighted here, processes dopamine have been found in individuals with psychopathic traits and may be linked to violent, criminal behavior.
The brains of psychopaths appear to be wired to keep seeking a reward at any cost, new research from Vanderbilt University finds. The research uncovers the role of the brain's reward system in psychopathy and opens a new area of study for understanding what drives these individuals.

"This study underscores the importance of neurological research as it relates to behavior," Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said. "The findings may help us find new ways to intervene before a personality trait becomes antisocial behavior."

The results were published March 14, 2010, in Nature Neuroscience.

"Psychopaths are often thought of as cold-blooded criminals who take what they want without thinking about consequences," Joshua Buckholtz, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and lead author of the new study, said. "We found that a hyper-reactive dopamine reward system may be the foundation for some of the most problematic behaviors associated with psychopathy, such as violent crime, recidivism and substance abuse."


A Radical New Definition of Addiction Creates a Big Storm

addiction graphic
© n/a
A sweeping new definition of addiction stakes out controversial positions that many, including the powerful psychiatric lobby, are likely to argue with.

If you think addiction is all about booze, drugs, sex, gambling, food and other irresistible vices, think again. And if you believe that a person has a choice whether or not to indulge in an addictive behavior, get over it. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) blew the whistle on these deeply held notions with its official release of a new document defining addiction as a chronic neurological disorder involving many brain functions, most notably a devastating imbalance in the so-called reward circuitry. This fundamental impairment in the experience of pleasure literally compels the addict to chase the chemical highs produced by substances like drugs and alcohol and obsessive behaviors like sex, food and gambling.

The definition, a result of a four-year process involving more than 80 leading experts in addiction and neurology, emphasizes that addiction is a primary illness - in other words, it's not caused by mental health issues such as mood or personality disorders, putting to rest the popular notion that addictive behaviors are a form of "self-medication" to, say, ease the pain of depression or anxiety.


Less depression for working moms who expect that they 'can't do it all'

© Unknown
Working moms have lower rates of depression than their stay-at-home counterparts, but buying into the supermom myth could put working mothers at greater risk for depression.

A new study shows that working mothers who expressed a supermom attitude that work and home lives can be blended with relative ease showed more depression symptoms than working moms who expected that they would have to forego some aspects of their career or parenting to achieve a work-life balance.

"Women are sold a story that they can do it all, but most workplaces are still designed for employees without child-care responsibilities," said Katrina Leupp, a University of Washington sociology graduate student who led the study. In reality, juggling home and work lives requires some sacrifice, she said, such as cutting back on work hours and getting husbands to help more.

"You can happily combine child rearing and a career, if you're willing to let some things slide," Leupp said. She will present her study Aug. 21 at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Las Vegas, Nev.

Leupp analyzed survey responses from 1,600 women, all 40 years old and married, across the United States. The respondents, a mix of stay-at-home moms and working mothers, were participating in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, administered by the U.S. Department of Labor.


Psychopaths and Big Money - It All Adds Up

psycho coin in cup
© Thinkstock
Commerce students returned 'significantly higher primary psychopathy scores than science or arts majors'.
Psychopaths prefer commerce degrees - that's the finding of a world-first study examining university students' personalities and course preferences.

Victoria University students with higher scores for psychopathy traits tended to opt to study commerce, with law next most popular.

The study of 903 undergraduates found that significantly fewer with high psychopathy scores chose science and fewer still went for arts.

The paper - "Greed is Good? Student Disciplinary Choice and Self-Reported Psychopathy" - published this month in the international Journal of Personality and Individual Differences was sparked by fallout of the world financial crisis.

The role of high-profile financiers in the global recession made the idea of the psychopath in organisations increasingly relevant, said Victoria University associate professor of psychology Marc Wilson, who conducted the research with colleague Karena McCarthy.

2 + 2 = 4

Science and Religion

The corruption of science is one of the biggest problems our world has ever faced; it may, indeed, bring about the extinction of the human race. That prospect scares me and it should scare you. But more than being scared, my heart has been broken by the realization that the best hope of the human race - Truth, beautiful Truth - has been savaged and spoiled by the very guardians of the temple: scientists themselves under the influence of a ramified network of mutual pathological conspiracies that are divorced entirely from the body of normal humanity.

I was pretty young when I first learned that science could make mistakes; I grew up next door to a child whose mother took Thalidomide during pregnancy. When I was 14, our family doctor prescribed "diet pills" for me: methamphetamines. They nearly destroyed my health forever. In later years, I learned from the news-magazine show, 20/20, that the recommended treatment my grandfather had received for high blood pressure, provided by the Veteran's Administration, was actually what killed him. These are just a few highlights of a lifetime of experiences with doctors and other medical professionals who actually got things wrong about 75% of the time, and the remaining 25% that they got right was non-critical. In all critical situations, had I listened to my doctor's advice for myself or my children, there would have been serious negative consequences.

Magic Wand

Four-Year-Olds Know That Being Right is Not Enough

© iStockphoto
As they grow, children learn a lot about the world from what other people tell them. Along the way, they have to figure out who is a reliable source of information. A new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that when children reach around 4 years, they start noticing whether someone is actually knowledgeable or if they're just getting the answers from someone else.

Earlier studies have found that children as young as age three pay attention to whether someone is an accurate information source. If someone gives correct information, they'll go back to that person for more answers. But Shiri Einav of Oxford Brookes University in the UK thought there was more to the story. "If you give a correct response it doesn't necessarily mean you're knowledgeable" she says. "You could be accurate because you asked someone else for help or you could be accurate by a complete fluke." Einav and her coauthor, Elizabeth Robinson of Warwick University, wanted to know whether children assessing the reliability of others take into account the reasons for others' accuracy.

For their study, Einav and Robinson used puppets and a teddy bear to test children. A child would hold up a picture of an elephant, cow, or rabbit for each puppet to identify. Both puppets labeled all animals correctly but one puppet always knew the answer without any help, whereas the other puppet always relied on help from Ted. Then, Ted was removed so he couldn't help the puppets anymore and the child was given a picture of an unfamiliar animal - a mongoose - and asked which puppet could tell them what it was.


Japanese Return Money Lost in the Tsunami

Safe Return!
© Minyanville

It looks like altruism isn't dead. At least not in Japan.

Last night, the Daily Mail ran a story reporting that since the earthquake and tsunami last March Japanese citizens have turned in nearly $78 million (2.3 billion yen) in found money. So far, thousands of wallets and purses have been turned in, along with over 5,700 safes that reportedly washed up onshore.

According to Japan's National Police Agency, most of the money found in hard hit areas has been returned to its original owners. Most people kept forms of identification in their safes, which made it easy to find the owners -- once the safes were open anyway.

At one point, so many safes had been turned into police that they had difficulty finding places to store them. The Ofunato Police Station had to hire experts to help them break into the recovered safes.

The article quotes Koetsu Saiki of the Miyagi Prefecture Police on the effort required to open and return nearly 6,000 safes. "In most cases, the keyholes of these safes were filled with mud....We had to start by cutting apart metal doors with grinders and other tools."

Better Earth

Nature bats last: Radical political theology

Rather than succumb to strictly religious or technological fundamentalism, a radical political theology 'leaves behind fear-based protection rackets and arrogance-driven control fantasies'
Politics without theology is dangerous, and we must construct a new worldview not reducible to just evidence and logic.

[An edited version of this talk was presented to the Veterans for Peace conference in Portland, OR, on August 4, 2011]

My title is ambitious and ambiguous: revolution and resistance (which tend to be associated with left politics), revelation and redemption (typically associated with right-wing religion), all framed by a warning about ecological collapse. My goal is to connect these concepts to support an argument for a radical political theology.

First, I realise that the term "radical political theology" may be annoying. Some people will dislike "radical" and prefer a more pragmatic approach. Others will argue that theology shouldn't be political. Still others will want nothing to do with theology of any kind. But a politics without a theology is dangerous, a theology without a politics is irrelevant, and radical is realistic.

By politics, I don't mean we need to pretend to have a traditional political programme that will lead us to the land of milk and honey; instead, I'm merely suggesting that we always foreground the basic struggle for power. By theology, I don't mean that we need to believe in supernatural forces that will lead us to a land of milk and honey; instead, I'm merely pointing out that we all construct a worldview that is not reducible to evidence and logic.

And all this needs to be radical - an unflinching honesty about that unjust and unsustainable nature of the systems in which we live. Whatever pragmatic steps we take in the world, they should be based on radical analysis if they are to be realistic.


How Meditation Makes You More Rational

© masterscenter.net
A new study suggests that people who regularly practice Buddhist meditation make decisions in a more rational way.

It's no secret that humans are not entirely rational when it comes to weighing rewards. For example, we might be perfectly happy with how much money we're making - until we find out how much more the guy in the next cubicle is being paid.

But a new study suggests that people who regularly practice Buddhist meditation actually process these common social situations differently - and the researchers have the brain scans to prove it.


Stanford Prison Experiment Continues to Shock

Stanford Prison
Forty years ago a group of students hoping to make a bit of holiday money turned up at a basement in Stanford University, California, for what was to become one of the most notorious experiments in the study of human psychology.

The idea was simple - take a group of volunteers, tell half of them they are prisoners, the other half prison wardens, place them in a makeshift jail and watch what happens.

The Stanford prison experiment was supposed to last two weeks but was ended abruptly just six days later, after a string of mental breakdowns, an outbreak of sadism and a hunger strike.

"The first day they came there it was a little prison set up in a basement with fake cell doors and by the second day it was a real prison created in the minds of each prisoner, each guard and also of the staff," said Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist leading the experiment.