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Scientist seeks to banish evil, boost empathy

  • Psychopathology expert says idea of evil has done no good
  • Sees empathy as world's most valuable but ignored resource
Simon Baron-Cohen has been battling with evil all his life.

As a scientist seeking to understand random acts of violence, from street brawls to psychopathic killings to genocide, he has puzzled for decades over what prompts such acts of human cruelty. And he's decided that evil is not good enough.

"I'm not satisfied with the term 'evil'," says the Cambridge University psychology and psychiatry professor, one of the world's top experts in autism and developmental psychopathology.

"We've inherited this word.. and we use it to express our abhorrence when people do awful things, usually acts of cruelty, but I don't think it's anything more than another word for doing something bad. And as a scientist that doesn't seem to me to be much of an explanation. So I've been looking for an alternative -- we need a new theory of human cruelty."

Baron-Cohen, who is also director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, has just written a book in which he calls for a kind of rebranding of evil to offer a more scientific explanation for why people kill and torture, or have such great difficulty understanding the feelings of others.

His proposal is that evil be understood as a lack of empathy -- a condition he argues can be measured and monitored and is susceptible to education and treatment.

Comment: The reader is invited to read the SOTT editor's commentary in this article about Baron-Cohen's speculations: Why a lack of empathy is the root of all evil

For more information on the science of evil, readers are encouraged to read Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes By Andrew Lobaczewski.


Heart

Why We Don't Need God to Be Good (and What Religious Folk Don't Want You to Know)

Neuron
Religious people find it very annoying that people don't need God to be good, as science has now incontestably proved.

For millennia, we've been brainwashed into believing that we needed the Almighty to redeem us from an essentially corrupt nature. Left to our own devices, people would quickly devolve into beasts, more violent, tactless, aggressive, and selfish, than we already are.

Today, we know that this isn't true. With the discovery of mirror neurons by Italian neuroscientist Giaccomo Rizzolatti in the 1990s, we now have physiological proof of why -- and how -- our species became hard-wired for goodness. Mirror neurons are miraculous cells in the brain whose sole purpose is to harmonize us with our environments. By reflecting the outside world inward, we actually become each other -- a little bit; neurologically changed by what is happening around us. Mirror neurons are the reason that we have empathy and can feel each other's pain. It is because of mirror neurons that you blush when you see someone else humiliated, flinch when someone else is struck, and can't resist the urge to laugh when seeing a group struck with the giggles. (Indeed, people who test for "contagious yawning" tend to be more empathic.) These tiny mirrors are the key to most things noble and good inside us.

Magnify

Rome earthquake: Who was Raffaele Bendandi?

Image
© Unknown
Mr Bendandi became hugely famous in Italy for the accuracy of his predictions
On January 4 1924, after an earthquake struck the Italian province of Le Marche, Raffaele Bendandi hit the headlines.

Mr Bendandi, a self-taught scientist, had foreseen the quake, registering a statement with a notary on November 1923 that it would strike on January 2.

Although he was two days off, the Corriere della Sera newspaper splashed him on its front page, naming him: "The man who predicts earthquakes".

Mr Bendandi, who died in 1979, never provided any scientific proof for his theory that the movements of the moon and sun, as well as other planets in the solar system, exert a gravitational influence on the movements of the earth's crust.

Magic Wand

How Meditation Can Support Cancer Treatment

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© sharpbrains.com
My two previous blogs in this series have focused on several different treatments that are used as adjuncts or complements to contemporary medical treatments for cancer (chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy). While some people advocate for these treatments as alternatives to such medical treatment for cancer, to this point I have found testimonial data to support that position, but no convincing research. In this blog we'll look at a very popular complementary treatment: meditation.

Meditation as a Complement to Cancer Treatment

Let's begin by acknowledging that millions of people have used meditation for general health and mental health benefits for centuries. When I was a graduate student in clinical psychology, my wife, who was then suffering from frequent head and neck aches, tried everything from massage (delivered by me in a less than expert manner) to medications to the original "earth shoes" in an effort to find relief, with little effect. Then one day she told me that she'd signed up for a class in Transcendental Meditation (TM). All I knew about TM was that it was something The Beatles were into, and I was skeptical. Nevertheless, my wife took the day-long class, returned home with her secret mantra, and proceeded to practice TM twice a day. Three weeks later she told me that she'd had only one brief headache, whereas she was used to having two or three serious ones a week. So there you go -- some testimonial data from your blogger!

Book

The power of identification: We actually 'become' happy vampires or contented wizards when reading a book

reading
© Unknown
learning is fun - results confirm that the motivation to learn is preserved throughout the lifespan
University at Buffalo study finds assimilated narratives open brave new worlds to us and in us.

Bad news for muggle parents! A new study by psychologists at the University at Buffalo finds that we more or less "become" vampires or wizards just by reading about them.

The good news is that, although we might think our teeth are a little sharper after a session with Twilight, reading satisfies a deeply felt need for human connection because we not only feel like the characters we read about but, psychologically speaking, become part of their world and derive emotional benefits from the experience.

"Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective Assimilation Hypothesis," published in the current issue journal Psychological Science, presents research supporting the authors' hypothesis that by absorbing narratives, we can psychologically become a member of the group of characters described therein, a process that makes us feel connected to those characters and their social world.

Authors Shira Gabriel, PhD, associate professor of psychology at UB, and Ariana Young, a UB graduate student working in the field of social psychology, also found that the sense of belonging that results from assimilating narratives provokes the same feelings of satisfaction and happiness we would have if we actually were part of the world described.

Comment: Since identification with the narrative (whether through a book, movie, radio or television show) has such a powerful effect on human psyche, it would be advisable and beneficial to look for impressions that act as "food for the soul", and be wary of influences that promote pathological thinking or further immersion in the illusion.

Consider the following from Superluminal Communication transcript dated 9th of April, 2011:
A: Being careful about what you allow into your "field".

Q: (L) In what sense?

A: All senses.

Q: (L) What do you mean "all senses"?

A: Seeing, hearing, speaking, and so on [...]

A: We have more in mind. Take care with interacting with negative energies.

Q: (L) Well that's kinda like creating your own reality, isn't it?

A: Not what we mean... Keep your guard up and do not allow negative energies to slip by... such as believing lies... listening to negative music while thinking it is positive...watching negative movies and thinking it is negligible. It is extremely important to not lie to the self. One can listen or watch many things as long as the truth of the orientation is known, acknowledged, and understood. Clear?

Q: (L) So, in other words: awareness. Calling a spade a spade and not allowing something negative to enter you and believing it is positive. You can see it, perceive it and acknowledge it but not allow it to influence you. Because obviously, you cannot shut off your perceptions of the world, but you can control how it affects you. So, don't let it inside, thinking it's something that it's not.

(Belibaste) So, see it as it is. If it is negative, see it as negative.

(L) Yeah, and they're saying to focus on truth in order for changes to manifest in you that are positive. That is, "positive" can mean acknowledging that something is negative because it is truth.

Q: (Galatea) Choose the seeds you wish to water.

(L) Is that basically what we're talking about here?

A: Yes



Hourglass

The Quarterlife Crisis: Young, Insecure and Depressed

Quarter life crisis
© Jeffrey Blackler/Alamy
One third of all people in their 20s feel depressed, say researchers.
New research by British psychologists shows educated twenty and thirty-somethings most likely to be hit by pre-midlife blues

It is supposed to be the time of opportunity and adventure, before mortgages and marriage have taken their toll. But struggling to cope with anxieties about jobs, unemployment, debt and relationships, many young adults are experiencing a "quarterlife crisis", according to new research by British psychologists .

Bearing all the hallmarks of the midlife crisis, this phenomenon - characterised by insecurities, disappointments, loneliness and depression - is hitting twenty- and thirty-somethings shortly after they enter the "real world", with educated professionals most likely to suffer.

"Quarterlife crises don't happen literally a quarter of the way through your life," said lead researcher Dr Oliver Robinson, from the University of Greenwich in London. "They occur a quarter of your way through adulthood, in the period between 25 and 35, although they cluster around 30."

Bulb

Who knows you best? Not you, say psychologists

Image
© Unknown
Know thyself. That was Socrates' advice, and it squares with conventional wisdom. "It's a natural tendency to think we know ourselves better than others do," says Washington University in St. Louis assistant professor Simine Vazire.

But a new article by Vazire and her colleague Erika N. Carlson reviews the research and suggests an addendum to the philosopher's edict: Ask a friend. "There are aspects of personality that others know about us that we don't know ourselves, and vice-versa," says Vazire. "To get a complete picture of a personality, you need both perspectives." The paper is published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

It's not that we know nothing about ourselves. But our understanding is obstructed by blind spots, created by our wishes, fears, and unconscious motives - the greatest of which is the need to maintain a high (or if we're neurotic, low) self-image, research shows. Even watching ourselves on videotape does not substantially alter our perceptions - whereas others observing the same tape easily point out traits we're unaware of.

Not surprisingly, our intimates and those who spend the most time with us know us best. But even strangers have myriad cues to who we are: clothes, musical preferences, or Facebook postings. At the same time, our nearest and dearest have reasons to distort their views. After all, a boorish spouse or bullying child says something to the other spouse or parent. "We used to collect ratings from parents - and we've mostly stopped, because they're useless," notes Vazire. What such data would show: Everyone's own child is brilliant, beautiful, and charming.

Comment: But as always, the devil is in the details, and more often than not feedback from others may be colored by their own perceptions and blind spots. Thus, it is the catch 22 of objective observation, where one has to be willing to shed or go beyond the personal bias, projection or preconception, and learn to see oneself and others as they are.


Yoda

Swearing can help relieve pain, study claims

Swearing
© ALAMY
Research proves that swearing triggers not only an emotional response, but a physical one too

Scientists from Keele University found that letting forth a volley of foul language can have a powerful painkilling effect, especially for people who do not normally use expletives.

To test the theory, student volunteers placed their hands in a bucket of ice cold water while swearing repeatedly.

They then repeated the exercise but, instead of swearing, used a harmless phrase instead.

Researchers found that the students were able to keep their hands submerged in the icy water for longer when repeating the swear word - establishing a link between swearing and an increase in pain tolerance.

They also found that the pain-numbing effect was four times more likely to work in the volunteers who did not normally use bad language.

The team believes the pain-lessening effect occurs because swearing triggers the ''fight or flight'' response.

The accelerated heart rates of the students repeating the swear word may indicate an increase in aggression, in a classic fight or flight response of ''downplaying feebleness in favour of a more pain-tolerant machismo''.

Eye 1

Missing the gorilla: Why we don't see what's right in front of our eyes

Image
© Janelle Seegmiller, U of Utah, and Daniel Simons, U of Illinois
University of Utah psychologist Jason Watson displays a famous video showing people passing a basketball while a person in a gorilla suit walks across the screen. When unsuspecting viewers were asked to count how many times the basketball is passed, more than 40 percent failed to see the person in the gorilla suit. Watson and his colleagues conducted new research expanding on earlier work by psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons -- authors of the 2010 book "The Invisible Gorilla" -- and showing that a better "working memory capacity" explains why 58 percent of people to see the gorilla even if they are focusing on counting basketball passes.
University of Utah psychologists have learned why many people experience "inattention blindness" - the phenomenon that leaves drivers on cell phones prone to traffic accidents and makes a gorilla invisible to viewers of a famous video.

The answer: People who fail to see something right in front of them while they are focusing on something else have lower "working memory capacity" - a measure of "attentional control," or the ability to focus attention when and where needed, and on more than one thing at a time.

"Because people are different in how well they can focus their attention, this may influence whether you'll see something you're not expecting, in this case, a person in a gorilla suit walking across the computer screen," says the study's first author, Janelle Seegmiller, a psychology doctoral student.

The study - explaining why some people are susceptible to inattention blindness and others are not - will be published in the May issue of The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.

Bulb

Addressing negative thoughts most effective in fighting loneliness

Image
© Unknown
Better loneliness interventions sought to reduce its harmful effects on health.

Changing how a person perceives and thinks about others was the most effective intervention for loneliness, a sweeping analysis of previous research has determined. The findings may help physicians and psychologists develop better treatments for loneliness, a known risk factor for heart disease and other health problems.

Recently, researchers have characterized the negative influence of loneliness upon blood pressure, sleep quality, dementia, and other health measures. Those effects suggest that loneliness is a health risk factor, similar to obesity or smoking, which can be targeted to improve patients' health in several dimensions.

"People are becoming more isolated, and this health problem is likely to grow," said John Cacioppo, PhD, Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago. "If we know that loneliness is involved in health problems, the next question is what we can do to mitigate it."

To determine the most effective method for reducing loneliness, Cacioppo and a team of researchers from the University of Chicago examined the long history of research on the topic. Published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review, their quantitative review found that the best interventions targeted social cognition rather than social skills or opportunities for social interaction.

The team's review, called a meta-analysis, analyzed the methods and results from dozens of papers that tested loneliness interventions. Strategies fell into four categories: improving social skills, increasing social support, creating opportunities for social interaction, and addressing social cognition.