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Fri, 19 Jul 2019
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit

Alarm Clock

There's a hidden cost to reminders

man behind wall
© Raj Eiamworakul/Unsplash
This morning my alarm sounded at 7:30. Shortly after, my Headspace app sent a notification reminding me to meditate for 10 minutes. When I sit down at work, my calendar pops up to remind me of a grant meeting. Before lunch, I shoot my colleague an email to remind her that we planned to meet. In the afternoon, I am greeted at my desk by several more email reminders about the seminar this afternoon, the planned IT works this weekend, and the meeting I need to set with my teaching assistants for next week. I add a couple of items to my paper to-do list, so I won't forget them. Then my phone beeps to let me know that I haven't completed my daily Danish lesson and that I signed up for a gym class tonight. All told, in a typical day, 20-30 digital reminders vie for my attention.

We are surrounded by reminders - some we schedule ourselves, and many we receive from others. Reminders range from the trivial (apps that coax us to drink water or sit up straight) to the consequential (annual notices to file your taxes or update your health care and retirement plans for the year).

Generally, setting up reminders makes sense. By delegating a task to a list or a device, we can reduce our cognitive load and free up brain capacity for other things.

There is also plenty of evidence showing that we will not act if we are not reminded to do so. Studies show that reminders can increase savings, adherence to medical treatments, charitable donations, and just about anything that isn't permanently at the top of our mind.

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Atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method, prize-winning physicist says

Marcelo Gleiser
© Eli Burakian Dartmouth College
Theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser, recipient of the 2019 Templeton Prize.
Marcelo Gleiser, a 60-year-old Brazil-born theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College and prolific science popularizer, has won this year's Templeton Prize. Valued at just under $1.5 million, the award from the John Templeton Foundation annually recognizes an individual "who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension." Its past recipients include scientific luminaries such as Sir Martin Rees and Freeman Dyson, as well as religious or political leaders such as Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.

Across his 35-year scientific career, Gleiser's research has covered a wide breadth of topics, ranging from the properties of the early universe to the behavior of fundamental particles and the origins of life. But in awarding him its most prestigious honor, the Templeton Foundation chiefly cited his status as a leading public intellectual revealing "the historical, philosophical and cultural links between science, the humanities and spirituality." He is also the first Latin American to receive the prize.

Scientific American spoke with Gleiser about the award, how he plans to advance his message of consilience, the need for humility in science, why humans are special, and the fundamental source of his curiosity as a physicist.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

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Study: Short-acting psychedelic found in toad venom helps relieve depression, anxiety

Colorado River toad
© Mirko Rosenau
The Colorado River toad - Incilius Bufo alvarius
Forget meditation or standard medicine. A new study finds that a psychedelic found in toad venom may help people struggling with depression or anxiety.

Research conducted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine shows the fast-acting psychedelic, 5-MeO-DMT (it currently lacks a marketable household name), helped relieve symptoms in about 80 percent of the 362 study participants who tried it in a group setting. The authors believe the short duration of psychedelic effects make it a more favorable therapy for patients.

"Research has shown that psychedelics given alongside psychotherapy help people with depression and anxiety. However, psychedelic sessions usually require 7 - 8 hours per session because psychedelics typically have a long duration of action," says co-author Alan K. Davis, a postdoctoral research fellow with the university's Behavioral Research Unit, in a release. "Because 5-MeO-DMT is short-acting and lasts approximately 30-90 minutes, it could be much easier to use as an adjunct to therapy because current therapies usually involve a 60 - 90 minute session."

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Brain perceives objects better with attention

Perception in Brain
© UCF - CS Department
La Jolla -- It's easy to miss something you're not looking for. In a famous example, people were asked to closely observe two groups of people--one group clad in black, the other in white--pass a ball among themselves. Viewers were asked to count the number of times the ball passed from black to white. Remarkably, most observers did not notice a man in a gorilla suit, walking among the players. This ability of the brain to ignore extraneous visual information is critical to how we work and function, but the processes governing perception and attention are not fully understood. Scientists have long theorized that attention to a particular object can alter perception by amplifying certain neuronal activity and suppressing the activity of other neurons (brain "noise").

Now, Salk scientists have confirmed this theory by showing how too much background noise from neurons can interrupt focused attention and cause the brain to struggle to perceive objects. The findings, which appeared in eLife on February 22, 2019, could help improve designs for visual prosthetics.

"This study informs us about how information is encoded in the electrical circuits in the brain," says Salk Professor John Reynolds, senior author of the paper. "When a stimulus appears before us, this activates a population of neurons that are selective for that stimulus. Layered on top of that stimulus-evoked response are large, low-frequency fluctuations in neural activity.


New study: Trigger warnings are effectively useless

trigger warning
Trigger warnings-notes of caution that inform students they are about to consume potentially traumatic course material-have "trivial effects" on mental health, according to a new study that casts significant doubt on whether the controversial classroom tool should be used.

The study, which recently appeared in Clinical Psychological Science, pushes back against the findings of Harvard University researchers, who suggested that trigger warnings might actually be a net negative-they could make some people less resilient to trauma. Trigger warnings don't really leave anyone worse off, according to the newer research conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Waikoto and the City University of New York. But they don't help matters, either: Study participants who received a trigger warning were just as bothered by traumatic words and images as participants who saw the words and images without any forewarning.

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How to actually, truly focus on what you're doing

memory hole graphic
© Rose Wong

Tired: Shallow work. Wired: Deep work.

Here's what my browser generally looks like: work email in the left-most tab, always open. TweetDeck in the next one, always open. A few Google Docs tabs with projects I'm working on, followed by my calendar, Facebook, YouTube, this publication's website and about 10 stories I want to read - along with whatever random shiny thing comes across my desktop. (Not to mention my iPhone constantly nagging me, though I've mostly fixed that problem.)

This is no way to work! It's awful, and my attention is divided across a dozen different things. My situation is far from unique, and most people who do most of their work on a computer know it all too well.

Enter "deep work," a concept coined by one of my favorite thinkers in this space, Cal Newport. He published a book in 2016 by that name, and in it he details his philosophy and strategy for actually focusing on the things we can do and accomplish.

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How to daydream your way to better learning and concentration

© Kniel Synnatzschke/plainpicture

Daydreaming need not be the enemy of focus. Learn to do it right and you could reap the benefits from more successful revision to more motivation

Your exams start in less than a month. Or there's that make-or-break meeting next week that you need to prepare for. But no matter how hard you try to focus, you just can't. The clock is ticking, but the sun is shining and, oh, is that a barbecue you can smell?

If losing concentration sometimes feels inevitable, that's because it is - your brain is hardwired to give in to distractions and take you away with the fairies. To make matters worse, science has long backed up the idea that a wandering mind is the enemy of productivity. Failing to focus has been linked to lack of success, unhappiness, stress and poor relationships. It's enough to make you give up and head for the beach you were just daydreaming about.

But don't. Recently, psychologists have been having a rethink. If we spend so much time in a state of reverie, they reason, it's probably not some psychological mistake. It turns out that there are several kinds of mind-wandering, and they don't all make you unhappy or unproductive. A wandering mind could even be a key weapon in your cognitive arsenal - if you know how to use it.

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Different meditation types train distinct parts of your brain

couples meditation
© Tom Merton/Getty
Better done in company.
We are used to hearing that meditation is good for the brain, but now it seems that not just any kind of meditation will do. Just like physical exercise, the kind of improvements you get depends on exactly how you train - and most of us are doing it all wrong.

That the brain changes physically when we learn a new skill, like juggling or playing a musical instrument, has been known for over a decade. Previous studies had suggested that meditation does something similar for parts of the brain involved in focused attention.

Two new studies published in Science Advances suggest that certain kinds of meditation can change social and emotional circuitry, too. The research comes out of the ReSource Project at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and looked at the effects of three different meditation techniques on the brains and bodies of more than 300 volunteers over 9 months.

Comment: There is so little known about the practice of meditation from a scientific point of view, but what seems to be known for sure is that it is beneficial in many different, and often surprising ways.

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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.