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Sat, 04 Feb 2023
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Older People Find It Harder to See the Wood for the Trees

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© Simon Savidge
When looking at a picture of many trees, young people will tend to say: "This is a forest". However, the older we get, the more likely we are to notice a single tree before seeing the forest. This suggests that the speed at which the brain processes the bigger picture is slower in older people. In a new study published in the July-August issue of Elsevier's Cortex, researchers have found that these age-related changes are correlated with a specific aspect of visual perception, known as Gestalt perception.

Markus Staudinger, together with Gereon R. Fink, Clare E. Mackey, and Silke Lux, investigated the brain's ability to focus on the local and global aspects of visual stimuli, in a group of young and elderly healthy subjects. They also studied how this ability is related to Gestalt perception, which is the mind's tendency to perceive many similar smaller objects as being part of a bigger entity. As expected, older people found it more difficult to concentrate on the global picture, but they also had trouble with the Gestalt principle of Good Continuation - the mind's preference for continuous shapes.

Participants in the study were shown groups of letters which were arranged in a pattern so that they formed a larger letter (see below), and asked whether a letter appeared on the local or global level. Importantly, the number of small letters forming the pattern was then varied. Usually, the smaller the letters are in the pattern, the easier it is to perceive the larger letter, and this was indeed true for the younger participants in the study. However, varying the number or letters did not help the older people, who remained slower to notice the global figure.

Butterfly

Meditation and Autism

meditation
© istockphoto.com/CAP53
Meditation is as old as the hills. Now, some researchers are conducting new studies into its benefits. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has used high-tech imaging tools to examine the brains of Buddhist monks as they practice meditation.

He has discovered that meditation stimulates the parts of the brain associated with empathy, attention and mind-body interaction. His colleague, professor of psychology Barbara Fredrickson, discovered that even novice meditators reported increased feelings of love and connection with others, the same benefits attributed to ingesting oxytocin. Further, the vagal tone, a heart rhythm associated with the "calm-and-connect" response is strengthened as well.

During the the Second World Congress on Positive Psychology, which meets July 23-26 in Philadelphia, Davidson will talk about meditation and neuroplasticity - the idea that the brain is constantly changing in response to experience and the environment, thus positivity can be learned. He contends that meditation not only benefits people psychologically, but it actually improves their immune system. In a recent study, he took two groups of adults, one that meditated and the control group that did not. After eight weeks, both groups were given flu shots. Those who meditated produced more antibodies, suggesting a connection between meditation and immune function.

Comment: To explore the many amazing benefits of meditation for yourself, please see the Eiriu Eolas Stress Control, Healing and Rejuvenation Program.


Magic Wand

Humans 'predisposed' to believe in the supernatural

Are humans programmed to believe in gods and in an afterlife? Forty separate studies (both analytical and empirical) conducted in 20 countries conclude that humans are predisposed to believe in gods and in afterlife.

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© Unknown
Both theology and atheism are reasoned responses to what is a basic impulse of the human mind, the studies suggest.

Fiftyseven researchers, led by Oxford University experts, carried out the studies for three years, representing a diverse range of cultures.

They wanted to ascertain if concepts such as gods and an afterlife are entirely taught or are basic expressions of human nature, according to an Oxford statement.

Family

How Domestic Abuse Can Scar an Unborn Child for Life

Domestic Violence Babies
© Main Online
Legacy: Pregnant women exposed to great stress may affect their babies later in life
High levels of stress during pregnancy can cause an unborn child to have lifelong mental scars, according to researchers.

They believe a mother facing unnecessary crises can leave an imprint in the brains of her children, making them less able to cope as they get older.

The study team asked 25 mothers whether they had suffered extreme stress caused by abuse from boyfriends or husbands while they were pregnant, and then rated their emotional level. They then monitored the behaviour of a particular gene in their children, who were aged nine to 19.

The gene - called the glucocorticoid receptor - is involved in the brain's response to stress.

The German researchers found that the gene was far less active in children whose mothers were victims of domestic abuse when they were pregnant. Abuse after pregnancy did not appear to affect the way the gene responded in the brains of their children.

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Peer Pressure Causes People to Literally Alter Their Memories of Recent Events

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© iStockphoto
Humans are highly social animals and for many years, psychologists have observed a variety of both positive and negative effects resulting from a human tendency called "memory conformity."

When groups of people are exposed to a similar experience, their recollections of the experience, as well as their feeling and values related to the event, tend to reshape over time in order to conform to those of their peers.

Empirical evidence of memory conformity and social compliance have been suggested by classic physiological studies conducted since the 1950s. Famous experiments and studies have been conducted in school, prison and workplace settings.

But earlier this week, the Journal of Science published a study providing the strongest neurological evidence yet in support of the existence of memory conformity.

In the study, Micah Edelson and colleagues showed a documentary to a group of volunteer test subjects. Later, the subjects were asked questions about the documentary while their brain activity was monitored by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

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Musicians are Probably Smarter than the Rest of Us

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© Caravaggio
The Musicians
Want to keep your mind healthy and sharp throughout your life? Pick up an instrument. A new study found that musicians might have brains that function better than their peers well into old age. Bet you wish you stuck with those piano lessons after all.

Researchers tested the mental abilities of senior citizens and discovered that musicians performed better at a number of tests. In particular, musicians excelled at visual memory tasks. While musicians had similar verbal capabilities to non-musicians, the musicians' ability to memorize new words was markedly better, too. Perhaps most importantly, the musicians' IQ scores were higher overall than those who spent their lives listening to music rather than performing it.

The experience of musicians also played a role in how sharp their minds were. The younger the musicians began to play their instruments, the better their minds performed at the mental tasks. Additionally, the total number of years musicians played instruments throughout their life corresponded with how strong their brains remained years later.

The study also found that musicians who took the time to exercise between symphonies had even higher-functioning brain capabilities. This finding supports another recent study that reported people who walk regularly maintain healthier brains. With that in mind, perhaps joining a marching band now will make you the smartest person at the retirement home in the future.

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Memories May Skew Visual Perception

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© The Jordan Rules
Taking a trip down memory lane while you are driving could land you in a roadside ditch, new research indicates. Vanderbilt University psychologists have found that our visual perception can be contaminated by memories of what we have recently seen, impairing our ability to properly understand and act on what we are currently seeing.

"This study shows that holding the memory of a visual event in our mind for a short period of time can 'contaminate' visual perception during the time that we're remembering," Randolph Blake, study co-author and Centennial Professor of Psychology, said.

"Our study represents the first conclusive evidence for such contamination, and the results strongly suggest that remembering and perceiving engage at least some of the same brain areas."

The study, led by research associate Min-Suk Kang, was recently published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

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Rock-Paper-Scissors Players Are Natural Copycats

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© Rock Paper Scissors Consulting
Players of the game rock paper scissors subconsciously copy each other's hand shapes, significantly increasing the chance of the game ending in a draw, according to new research.

A study published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that even when players lose out by drawing a game, they can't help themselves from copying the hand gestures of their opponent.

In an experiment researchers recruited 45 participants to play rock-paper-scissors in one of two conditions. In the first condition, both players were blindfolded. In the second, one player was blindfolded and the other was not. Players who won the most games within a 60 game match received a financial bonus, so although players may have preferred to draw rather than lose, the best outcome could only happen through avoiding draws.

In the blind-blind condition the number of games ending in a draw was exactly as chance predicts, i.e. a third. However, in the blind-sighted matches the number of games ending in draws was significantly higher than a third, suggesting that the sighted player was copying the gestures of the blindfolded one - even when it was not in their interests to do so.

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Bilingualism Seems to Boost Tots' Minds

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© Patricia Fioriello
When young children learn a second language, it strengthens their ability to pay attention to the right stuff, reports a new Cornell study.

"Our study showed that bilingualism in young children strengthens what is known as executive attention, which helps orient individuals in the sea of information coming in," said Sujin Yang, Ph.D. '07, lead author and now a professor at Tyndale University College in Canada. "It helps them know what to pay attention to, what to ignore and what action to take."

The study, co-authored by Barbara Lust, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell, and Hwajin Yang of Singapore Management University, is published in the July issue of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.

"We were able to begin to separate out the effects of bilingualism from the effects of culture, which other studies had not done," noted Lust. "Culture strongly influences parenting and child development. Emphasis on behavioral control and inhibition at an early age -- a feature more often found in East Asian cultures - has been linked to improved attention in children. Western cultures, by contrast, tend to emphasize individuality and self expression."

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Our Brains Have Multiple Mechanisms for Learning

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© ZME Science
One of the most important things humans do is learning this kind of pattern: when A happens, B follows. A new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, examines how people learn, and finds that they use different mental processes in different situations.

"There's a long history in the field of psychology of two different approaches to thinking about how we learn," says James McClelland of Stanford University, who cowrote the paper with graduate student Daniel Sternberg. One is learning by association; Pavlov's dog learned to associate food with the sound of a bell. "You learn things because they occur together in time," McClelland says. In the brain, this probably happens when the neurons that are associated with food and the sound of the bell form a connection.

But there's another way to learn, too, McClelland says. "If you go into a restaurant, eat two different foods, and get sick, you don't know which one it was. It could have been the peanut sauce or the shrimp. If you go out the next day and eat shrimp and don't get sick, you learn, aha, it's the peanuts that make you sick. But you're using an explicit reasoning process there." The experience with the shrimp indirectly influenced what you know about the peanuts.