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Sat, 04 Dec 2021
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Science of the Spirit


Empathy is the most important leadership skill according to research

Empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders, but it is taking on a new level of meaning and priority. Far from a soft approach it can drive significant business results.

You always knew demonstrating empathy is positive for people, but new research demonstrates its importance for everything from innovation to retention. Great leadership requires a fine mix of all kinds of skills to create the conditions for engagement, happiness and performance, and empathy tops the list of what leaders must get right.

The Effects of Stress

The reason empathy is so necessary is that people are experiencing multiple kinds of stress, and data suggests it is affected by the pandemic — and the ways our lives and our work have been turned upside down.

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MindMatters: Gurdjieff, Fourth Way, and Solioonensius in the New Normal - with Alan Francis

alan francis
Gurdjieff escaped the Russian Empire during the outbreak of mass madness otherwise known as the Great Russian Revolution. He lived and taught in France during the Nazi occupation. But the connection between Gurdjieff, the Fourth Way, and totalitarianism isn't much discussed, so on this episode of MindMatters we welcome back Alan Francis of the International School of the Fourth Way to discuss the place and function of the Work in the current rumblings of mass madness.

Alan stresses the importance of maintaining a personal inner presence, working with others and for a larger aim. Large social projects inevitably devolve - often to mass murder and injustice. But meaningful change can only come from the individual. Alan also discusses fear - its purpose and and how to manage it - the opportunities offered by the present times for self-development, and updates us on his progress opening a Fourth Way school in Spain (click here to support his work), as well as his upcoming book.

Running Time: 01:29:36

Download: MP3 — 82 MB


Our brains have a 'fingerprint' too

An EPFL scientist has pinpointed the signs of brain activity that make up our brain fingerprint, which - like our regular fingerprint - is unique.
Dimitri Van De Ville and Enrico Amico

"I think about it every day and dream about it at night. It's been my whole life for five years now," says Enrico Amico, a scientist and SNSF Ambizione Fellow at EPFL's Medical Image Processing Laboratory and the EPFL Center for Neuroprosthetics. He's talking about his research on the human brain in general, and on brain fingerprints in particular. He learned that every one of us has a brain "fingerprint" and that this fingerprint constantly changes in time. His findings have just been published in Science Advances.
"My research examines networks and connections within the brain, and especially the links between the different areas, in order to gain greater insight into how things work," says Amico. "We do this largely using MRI scans, which measure brain activity over a given time period." His research group processes the scans to generate graphs, represented as colorful matrices, that summarize a subject's brain activity. This type of modeling technique is known in scientific circles as network neuroscience or brain connectomics. "All the information we need is in these graphs, that are commonly known as "functional brain connectomes". The connectome is a map of the neural network. They inform us about what subjects were doing during their MRI scan - if they were resting or performing some other tasks, for example. Our connectomes change based on what activity was being carried out and what parts of the brain were being used," says Amico.


Adults who stutter stop if they think no one is listening - study

stage perform
© Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd/DigitalVision/Getty Images
More than 70 million people worldwide are thought to have some kind of stuttering speech impediment - including the current President of the United States - and experts are still continuing to learn more about the condition and what causes it.

Comment: Biden's case is quite different, and the evidence shows that he's probably suffering from dementia.

Now a new study has revealed something that may give us a big clue into why stuttering happens and how we can treat it: When adults who stutter are on their own and think no one is listening, their stutter suddenly goes away.

And it seems to be that perception of having a listener that's key. What's important about this particular piece of research is that the study participants were convinced that no one was around to hear what they were saying, providing solid scientific evidence for how different scenarios affect the condition.

Comment: See also: Social contagion: A mysterious spike in Tourette's leads back to YouTube star

Arrow Down

Highly processed foods harm memory in the aging brain

Processed Food
© Shutterstock
The study diet mimicked ready-to-eat human foods that are often packaged for long shelf lives, such as salty snacks, frozen entrees and deli meats containing preservatives.
Four weeks on a diet of highly processed food led to a strong inflammatory response in the brains of aging rats that was accompanied by behavioral signs of memory loss, a new study has found.

Researchers also found that supplementing the processed diet with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA prevented memory problems and reduced the inflammatory effects almost entirely in older rats.

Neuroinflammation and cognitive problems were not detected in young adult rats that ate the processed diet.

The study diet mimicked ready-to-eat human foods that are often packaged for long shelf lives, such as potato chips and other snacks, frozen entrees like pasta dishes and pizzas, and deli meats containing preservatives.

Highly processed diets are also associated with obesity and type 2 diabetes, suggesting older consumers might want to scale back on convenience foods and add foods rich in DHA, such as salmon, to their diets, researchers say - especially considering harm to the aged brain in this study was evident in only four weeks.

"The fact we're seeing these effects so quickly is a little bit alarming," said senior study author Ruth Barrientos, an investigator in The Ohio State University Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral health.

"These findings indicate that consumption of a processed diet can produce significant and abrupt memory deficits - and in the aging population, rapid memory decline has a greater likelihood of progressing into neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. By being aware of this, maybe we can limit processed foods in our diets and increase consumption of foods that are rich in the omega-3 fatty acid DHA to either prevent or slow that progression."

The research is published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.


Hair analysis shows meditation training reduces long-term stress

A study provides the first objective evidence that mental training reduces physical signs of long periods of stress.
© Shutterstock
After six months of meditation training, the amount of cortisol in the subjects’ hair had decreased significantly, on average by 25 percent.
Mental training that promotes skills such as mindfulness, gratitude or compassion reduces the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol in hair. This is what scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and the Social Neuroscience Research Group of the Max Planck Society in Berlin have found out. The amount of cortisol in hair provides information about how much a person is burdened by persistent stress. Earlier positive training effects had been shown in acutely stressful situations or on individual days - or were based on study participants' self-reports.

According to a study by the Techniker Krankenkasse, 23 percent of people in Germany frequently suffer from stress. This condition not only puts a strain on the well-being of those affected, but it is also linked to a number of physiological diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and psychological disorders such as depression, one of the world's leading causes of disease burden (Global Burden of Disease Study, 2017).

Therefore, effective methods are being sought to reduce everyday stress in the long term. One promising option is mindfulness training, in which participants train their cognitive and social skills, including attention, gratitude and compassion, through various meditation and behavioural exercises. Various studies have already shown that even healthy people feel less stressed after a typical eight-week training programme. Until now, however, it has been unclear how much the training actually contributes to reducing the constant burden of everyday stress. The problem with many previous studies on chronic stress is that the study participants were usually asked to self-assess their stress levels after the training. However, this self-reporting by means of questionnaires could have distorted the effects and made the results appear more positive than they actually were.


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Logic of the body's 'second brain'

Spartans are discovering new science in the gut and, potentially, new leads on how to treat irritable bowel syndrome and other disorders.
Glial Cells
© Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci./Gulbransen Lab
A network of glial cells, the logic gates of the gut’s nervous system, are seen in this micrograph. The cells — the dark orbs enveloped in gray — have been colorized according to how they respond to a chemical signal.
Researchers at Michigan State University have made a surprising discovery about the human gut's enteric nervous system that itself is filled with surprising facts. For starters, there's the fact that this "second brain" exists at all.

"Most people don't even know that they have this in their guts," said Brian Gulbransen, an MSU Foundation Professor in the College of Natural Science's Department of Physiology.

Beyond that, the enteric nervous system is remarkably independent: Intestines could carry out many of their regular duties even if they somehow became disconnected from the central nervous system. And the number of specialized nervous system cells, namely neurons and glia, that live in a person's gut is roughly equivalent to the number found in a cat's brain.

"It's like this second brain in our gut," Gulbransen said. "It's an extensive network of neurons and glia that line our intestines."


How therapy, not pills effectively treats back pain

© University of Colorado Boulder
Researchers at the Intermountain Neuroimaging Consortium on the CU Boulder campus watch as a subject undergoes an fMRI bran scan. New research shows a psychological therapy can not only provide lasting relief from chronic pain but may allso influence brain regions related to pain generation.
As many as one in five Americans suffer from chronic pain, an often intractable problem that costs the country more than $600 billion in treatments and lost work-time and has helped fuel a deadly opioid epidemic.

But new CU Boulder research, published today in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, provides some of the strongest evidence yet that a non-drug, psychological treatment can provide potent and durable relief.

The study found that two-thirds of chronic back pain patients who underwent a four-week psychological treatment called Pain Reprocessing Therapy (PRT) were pain-free or nearly pain-free post-treatment. And most maintained relief for one year. They also showed changes in pain-generating brain regions after therapy.

"For a long time we have thought that chronic pain is due primarily to problems in the body, and most treatments to date have targeted that," said lead author Yoni Ashar, who conducted the study while earning his PhD in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU Boulder. "This treatment is based on the premise that the brain can generate pain in the absence of injury or after an injury has healed, and that people can unlearn that pain. Our study shows it works."

Magic Hat

Longtime skeptic now accepts parapsychology as a science (with caveats)

Chris French skeptic ufo parapsychology
© Bill Robinson
Professor Chris French is the Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit in the Psychology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Read the fine print. It's a matter of determining what can be considered a science statement, whether it is proven or disproven

University of London psychology prof Chris French has a complex relationship with parapsychology (research into, for example, extrasensory perception or ESP). At one time, he believed in it, then was, for four decades, a skeptic — but he has now come round to a new approach to the question: How do we decide what is and isn't "science":
Before we can assess the scientific status of any discipline, we must first consider what philosophers of science refer to as the demarcation problem. What criteria must be applied in order to decide whether a discipline is a true science or not? This is a fascinating topic that has been a subject of discussion amongst philosophers of science for a very long time. A full discussion of this issue is way beyond the scope of the current article. Suffice it to say that many commentators have ultimately concluded that it is simply not possible to devise a set of strict criteria that can be applied in such a way that they correctly classify all true sciences as such and exclude each and every example of non-science, including pseudosciences.

Does that mean that there is no difference between science and pseudoscience? No, it does not. Although there is no definite dividing line between day and night, we can all agree that clear examples of each are easy to find. In the same way, we can all agree that, say, physics and chemistry are clear examples of true sciences and astrology and homeopathy are excellent examples of pseudoscience. So how are we doing this?

The best approach appears to be one that does not attempt to apply a definitive list of strict criteria but instead accepts that there are certain 'benchmarks' that characterise what we think of as good science.

Chris French, "Why I now believe parapsychology is a science not a pseudoscience" at The Skeptic (September 22, 2021)


Conscientious objections to the COVID vaccine should be honored

Ditched mask
© Bill of Health/KJN
Ditching the Mask
As employers and governments have become more stringent with COVID vaccination requirements, many are no longer honoring conscientious or religious exemptions to the vaccine. Several states have dropped or are in the process of dropping these exemptions. Some hospitals and health departments, such as the New York Department of Health, have eliminated religious exemptions. In the private sector, United Airlines has announced that employees with religious exemptions to the vaccine will be placed on unpaid leave.

Even if vaccination is a wise idea, removing these exemptions is morally wrong and unjust. The rights of conscience and religious liberty must be respected as a precondition for responsible decision-making of all kinds.

Why Conscience Matters

Why should conscience matter at all? Many people think that appeals to conscience (religious or non-religious) are just convenient excuses to get around the rules. But this is a grossly unfair way of characterizing what conscience is and why it matters. Let me explain.