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Thu, 23 May 2019
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


What happens when you spend a year using science to improve your brain?

brain graphic
© Illustration by James Bareham / The Verge

How plastic is the brain?

Here are two things that are both true. Neuroplasticity is real - that is, the brain really can change and learn and improve based on experience. And there's little evidence that brain-training games are any better than placebo.

"So," wondered science journalist Caroline Williams, "if brain training isn't the way to apply it, what should we be doing?" Williams is the author of My Plastic Brain: One Woman's Yearlong Journey to Discover if Science Can Improve Her Mind. She picked areas in which she wanted to improve - everything from attention to anxiety to creativity to navigation - and spent a year trying new techniques to see how much she would really pick up.

Comment: The idea behind training one's brain is certainly valuable, but much of what is on offer in the commercial marketplace is little more than hype. If you really want to 'train your brain', whether it be to improve intelligence, be more creative, have greater attention or be less emotionally reactive, chances are you're not going to get this from a phone app or computer software. Exercise, meditation, targeted learning (like language learning), better nutrition - these are the things that science is uncovering to be truly helpful in improving brain performance, not gimmicky 'brain games'.

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Humans have an inbuilt compass

Built-in Compass
Compasses are very useful, but, researchers suggest, the best one might reside somewhere in your brain.
The Earth's magnetic field is faint, yet creatures from birds and bees to lobsters and bacteria have been shown to detect its dull pull. Now, after half a century of looking, scientists have reported the most convincing evidence yet to suggest humans, too, share this ability.

The mysteries surrounding magnetoreception, as it is called, abound. It makes sense for globetrotting migratory birds and turtles to have an in-built compass, but it is far less obvious why cows might need one to orient their bodies along the magnetic field lines when grazing, or dogs to point north or south when defecating.

The first inklings that humans might have an internal compass came from studies by Robin Baker at the University of Manchester in the UK. In 1980, he reported that if he blindfolded students and transported them out of town, they could almost always point towards the quadrant of their starting point, but they lost this ability if a bar magnet was strapped to their heads. Subsequent attempts to replicate the findings failed, however.

Biophysicist Joe Kirschvink, then at Princeton University in the US, is one person whose replication experiments fizzled in the 1980s. But three decades later, and now at the California Institute of Technology, he and colleagues came up with a better way of testing whether humans have an internal compass.

Instead of asking his subjects for a conscious, behavioural response to changes in magnetic field, he decided to ask their brains directly.

Eye 1

Incidental negative emotions can reduce our capacity to trust others

traffic jam guy
© istock.com/tommaso79
Incidental emotions, caused for instance by a traffic jam, influence the way we interact with others and specifically how much we trust others.
That emotions can influence the way we interact with others is well known - just think of how easily an argument with a loved one can get heated. But what about when these emotions are triggered by events that have nothing to do with the person we are interacting with, for instance the annoyance caused by a traffic jam or a parking fine. Researchers call these types of emotions "incidental", because they were triggered by events that are unrelated to our currently ongoing social interactions. It has been shown that incidental emotions frequently occur in our day-to-day interactions with others, although we might not be fully aware of them.

Negative emotions suppress trust

For the study, UvA neuroeconomist Jan Engelmann teamed up with UZH neuroeconomists Ernst Fehr, Christian Ruff and Friederike Meyer. The team investigated whether incidental aversive affect can influence trust behavior and the brain networks relevant for supporting social cognition. To induce a prolonged state of negative affect, the team used the well-established threat-of-shock method, in which participants are threatened with (but only sometimes given) an unpleasant electrical shock. This threat has been shown to reliably induce anticipatory anxiety. Within this emotional context, participants were then asked to play a trust game, which involved decisions about how much money they wished to invest in a stranger (with the stranger having the possibility to repay in kind, or keep all the invested money to themselves). The researchers found that participants indeed trusted significantly less when they were anxious about receiving a shock, even though the threat had nothing to do with their decision to trust.

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Mothers are drowning in stress

mother child stress
© Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Mothers are caught between ideals of devotion to work and devotion to children.
It's 2019 and American women have been in the workforce for decades, but a new report shows that their careers still get stuck on impossible ideals of work and home. As a result, they are drowning of stress that no woman can solve on her own.

Sociologist Caitlyn Collins spent five years studying parenthood in four wealthy western countries for Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, and she's found that U.S. moms have it the worst.

"Across the countries where I conducted interviews, one desire remained constant among mothers. Women wanted to feel that they were able to combine paid employment and child-rearing in a way that seemed equitable and didn't disadvantage them at home or at work." (8)

Comment: Much of the conflict here seems to be coming from those who tell women what they should want. The fact that motherhood has been devalued, while any woman worth her salt should be able to compete with the men in their chosen field, has done a serious amount of damage to the female psyche. Overall, it seems women would be better off if they chose, as individuals, whether it was more important to them to have a stellar career or a family, rather than believing the myth that they can 'have it all', without any consequences.

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SOTT Logo Radio

The Truth Perspective: The Hidden Role of Psi in Psychotherapy - and Evolution?

psychotherapy patient
© PhotoAlto/Alamy Stock Photo
Dr. Jim Carpenter's First Sight theory not only finds a role for psi in the creation of consciousness; it has a wide range of implications for what it means to be human, the nature of personal development, and potentially the development of life itself. With its focus on the importance of meaning, it has particular relevance to the practice of psychotherapy.

Today on the Truth Perspective we discuss a chapter in Carpenter's book on the subject, as well as a talk he gave in which he expands on the ideas presented there. Carpenter compares his theory with the Control/Mastery theory of psychotherapy, in which conscious and unconscious motivations play a central role. Last week we asked how to bring unconscious and conscious intentions into alignment. Carpenter's discussion of pathogenic beliefs and the role of the therapist in correcting them provides an answer: on an unconscious level, patients wish to have their unconscious pathogenic beliefs disproven. And psi can play a role in helping that process along.

Running Time: 01:23:45

Download: MP3 - 76.7 MB


How Inuit parents teach kids to control their anger

© Jean Briggs Collection / American Philosophical Society
Myna Ishulutak (upper right, in blue jacket) lived a seminomadic life as a child. Above: photos of the girl and her family in the hunting camp of Qipisa during the summer of 1974.
Back in the 1960s, a Harvard graduate student made a landmark discovery about the nature of human anger.

At age 34, Jean Briggs traveled above the Arctic Circle and lived out on the tundra for 17 months. There were no roads, no heating systems, no grocery stores. Winter temperatures could easily dip below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Briggs persuaded an Inuit family to "adopt" her and "try to keep her alive," as the anthropologist wrote in 1970.

At the time, many Inuit families lived similar to the way their ancestors had for thousands of years. They built igloos in the winter and tents in the summer. "And we ate only what the animals provided, such as fish, seal and caribou," says Myna Ishulutak, a film producer and language teacher who lived a similar lifestyle as a young girl.


Study: Memories of music cannot be lost to Alzheimer's and dementia

brain regions

The part of your brain responsible for ASMR catalogs music, and appears to be a stronghold against Alzheimer's and dementia.

Some music inspires you to move your feet, some inspires you to get out there and change the world. In any case, and to move hurriedly on to the point of this article, it's fair to say that music moves people in special ways.

If you're especially into a piece of music, your brain does something called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), which feels to you like a tingling in your brain or scalp. It's nature's own little "buzz", a natural reward, that is described by some as a "head orgasm". Some even think that it explains why people go to church, for example, "feeling the Lord move through you", but that's another article for another time.

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Neurofeedback - keeping you in the zone

Neuro feedback study 1

Study participants navigated a virtual plane up and down through a course of red boxes while we recorded their electrical brain activity from an electroencephalography (EEG) cap (see top panel). The participants became more and more agitated as the course also became more and more difficult over time which led most participants to miss one of the boxes (i.e. crashed the plane) in the middle of the course (see Control, bottom panel). When we provided a brain-computer interface (BCI) based neurofeedback signal that reflected their level of stress or arousal, participants were able to decrease their arousal level, which in term improved their task performance.
Our state of arousal - being fearful, agitated, or calm - can significantly affect our ability to make optimal decisions, judgments, and actions in real-world dynamic environments. Imagine, for instance, walking across a balance beam. Your performance - speed across the beam and the odds of making it across without falling off - are dramatically better if the beam sits a mere six inches off the ground and you are relaxed rather than terror-stricken on a beam 60 feet higher. To keep you in the zone of maximum performance, your arousal needs to be at moderate levels, not so high that it pushes you over the edge.

Biomedical engineers at Columbia Engineering have shown - for the first time - that they can use online neurofeedback to modify an individual's arousal state to improve performance in a demanding sensory motor task, such as flying a plane or driving in suboptimal conditions. The researchers used a brain computer interface (BCI) to monitor, through electroencephalography (EEG) in real time, the arousal states of the study participants when they were engaged in a virtual reality aerial navigation task. The system generated a neurofeedback signal that helped participants to decrease their arousal in particularly difficult flight situations, which in turn improved participants' performance. The study was published today by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Oxford researcher believes there are seven moral rules that unite humanity

swimming circle
In 2012, Oliver Scott Curry was an anthropology lecturer at the University of Oxford. One day, he organized a debate among his students about whether morality was innate or acquired. One side argued passionately that morality was the same everywhere; the other, that morals were different everywhere.

"I realized that, obviously, no one really knew, and so decided to find out for myself," Curry says.

Seven years later, Curry, now a senior researcher at Oxford's Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, can offer up an answer to the seemingly ginormous question of what morality is and how it does - or doesn't - vary around the world.

Morality, he says, is meant to promote cooperation. "People everywhere face a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them," he says as lead author of a paper recently published in Current Anthropology. "Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code. All agree that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do."

Comment: See Jonathan Haidt's take on morality and the science of values: The New Science of Morality

2 + 2 = 4

Why Darwinism Is Wrong, Dead Wrong - Part 1: Intelligent Design and Information

darwin statue

Charles Darwin: God-savior of materialism
Despite its name, Darwin's theory of evolution - and its post-genetics variation, neo-Darwinism - is almost universally accepted as hard fact. It's 'scientifically proven' we're told, which in practice simply denotes something about which you are not allowed to ask questions. But Darwinism is wrong, dead wrong. It is wrong philosophically, scientifically and morally.
  • It is philosophically wrong, because even some non-sloppy thinking combined with common sense is all you need to dismiss it.
  • It is scientifically wrong, because the more science progresses (the more we discover about molecular biology, for example), the more Darwinism loses the little plausibility it had left.
  • It is morally wrong, because the kind of materialism and (false) postulations about nature Darwinism promotes imply an abhorrent world view that acts like poison on human morality; as such, it paved the way for Nazism, Stalinism, postmodernism and today's nihilist, almost psychopathic outlook on life in general.
In the first part of this series, we'll look at Darwin's theory from the philosophical angle. Philosophy promotes rigorous thinking, the detection of gross errors in reasoning and the ability to hold different and conflicting ideas in mind without freaking out. Let's see how Darwinism fares.