PsychNews: Aug. 21 – 28

1. What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker? by Noam Shpancer, Ph.D

    “In one recent study, healthy adults viewed fearful and calm faces while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure activity in the amygdale, the part of the brain that forms and stores emotional memories. Half of the participants were within 1.5 miles of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the other half lived at least 200 miles away. Participants who were near the World Trade Center on 9/11 had significantly higher amygdale activity when looking at the fearful faces compared to those who were living more than 200 miles away. “Our findings suggest that there may be long-term neurobiological correlates of trauma exposure, even in people who appear resilient,” said Dr. Barbara Ganzel, the lead researcher, “We have known for a long time that trauma exposure can lead to subsequent vulnerability to mental health disorders years after the trauma. This research is giving us clues about the biology underlying that vulnerability.” When trauma and hardship do leave a mark, it is usually a bruise under the skin, not a notch on the belt.”
    Personal note: I’ve written from experience that I think some negative events can be transformed to make us stronger. I think these findings ultimately depend on the individual and their coping strategy. In general people have a tendency to let traumatic experiences keep them down, I think this research does a good job at illuminating this fact, although I by no means believe that “once broken, always broken.”

2. Cognition, Motivation Linked In The Brain by Todd Braver Ph.D, Washington University

    “[A study] published in the Journal of Neuroscience, identified a brain region about two inches above the left eyebrow that sprang into action whenever study participants were shown a dollar sign, a predetermined cue that a correct answer on the task at hand would result in a financial reward.

    Using what researchers believe are short bursts of dopamine – the brain’s chemical reward system – the brain region then began coordinating interactions between the brain’s cognitive control and motivation networks, apparently priming the brain for a looming “show me the money” situation.

    ‘The surprising thing we see is that motivation acts in a preparatory manner,’ says Adam C. Savine, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in psychology at Washington University. ‘This region gears up when the money cue is on.’ “

    Excerpt 2:
    “In this kind of test, as in the workplace, many distractions exist. In the midst of a deadline project with an “eye on the prize,” the phone still rings, background noise of printers and copying machines persist, an interesting world outside the window beckons and colleagues drop in to seek advice. A person’s ability to control his or her cognition – all the things a brain takes in – is directly linked to motivation. Time also plays a big factor. A project due in three weeks can be completed with some distraction; a project due tomorrow inhibits a person’s response to interrupting friends and colleagues and allows clearer focus on the goal.”

3. Fear and the Biological Non-Existence of Morality by Srini Pillay, M.D.

    “The challenge in human existence is that our brain studies are showing us that the moral systems in the human brain live side by side with the formidable and often much more powerful systems for fear and craving and that the desire to forgive is also challenged by the desire for retribution. My point here is that these brain studies show that none of these ideas is absolute; that as human beings we are prone to a certain struggle of duality and opposites that live together in the brain, and that try as we may to restrain this, I do not believe that we can at the level of these systems. As Einstein said: ‘You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created’ – which begs the question: if we are to solve this internal battle, what “level” can we access to do this?”

4. Do-Gooders Get Voted Off Island First: People Don’t Really Like Unselfish Colleagues

    “Parks and Stone found that unselfish colleagues come to be resented because they ‘raise the bar’ for what is expected of everyone. As a result, workers feel the new standard will make everyone else look bad.

    It doesn’t matter that the overall welfare of the group or the task at hand is better served by someone’s unselfish behavior, Parks said.

    ‘What is objectively good, you see as subjectively bad,’ he said.”

    Personal note: While this might reveal an ugly tendency in some humans, knowing this will be useful for organizations and businesses when trying to develop a social structure that limits tension between members or employees. I also wonder how true this is for professional sports teams which seem to share a strong collective identity.

5. Award-winning Research Launches Positive Neuroscience by Denise Clegg, Program Officer at the University of Pennsylvania

    “In July 2009, I described the The Positive Neuroscience Project of the University of Pennsylvania and the John Templeton Foundation, including a new research initiative inviting proposals for Positive Neuroscience Research Awards. The recipients of the 2010 Templeton Positive Neuroscience Awards have now been announced. $2.9 million has been given to 15 new research projects at the intersection of neuroscience and positive psychology. The winning projects explore a range of topics including how the brain enables humans to flourish, the biological bases of altruism, and the effects of positive interventions on the brain.”
    Personal note: I’ve written before about Positive Psychology and I am very glad to see that research is still advancing in the field. Taking a look at the neural correlates of these phenomena should shed a lot more light on how the brain corresponds to positive attitudes and mental well-being.

6. Test your attentional focus: is multi-tasking a good thing? by Dr. Pascale Michelon

    “Human atten­tion is lim­ited. Think about your atten­tional focus as the beam of a light. If the light is on an object it can­not be on other objects at the same time with the same inten­sity. Only dim light will be avail­able to light up the objects in the periph­ery. The same hap­pens in your atten­tional sys­tem. Divid­ing atten­tion results in less atten­tional power devoted to all the dif­fer­ent tasks that you are try­ing to do at the same time. The more tasks, the less atten­tion can be devoted to each. The result is more errors and waste of time. Although we all have the feel­ing that mul­ti­task­ing saves us time, it is often not the case.”

7. Naming Tools Is A Hands-On Task

    “Brain imaging studies have shown that when you identify a tool by name, the part of your brain that’s involved in manipulating the tool also turns on. Jessica K. Witt, of Purdue University, heard about some of this research and wanted to know whether it’s possible to slow down the process of coming up with the name by making the hands busy. We said, ‘shouldn’t there be some behavioral consequences?”

    In one experiment, each volunteer sat in front of a computer, squeezing a foam ball in one hand. They watched the screen while pictures appeared; each one showed either a tool or an animal. The participant was then supposed to name the tool or animal. People were generally slower at naming a tool if its handle was oriented toward the occupied hand. (They had no such problem with animals.)

    The results suggest that keeping the hand which was closer to the tool’s handle busy interfered with people’s ability to think about the tool and retrieve its name. The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.”

8. Laughter Can Play Key Role In Group Dynamics Even In A Serious Situation

    “[Researchers] found that ‘laughter matters, even when it is a serious group task,’ Keyton says. ‘Laughter is natural, but we try to suppress it in formal settings. So, when it happens, it’s worth closer examination.’

    For example, at one point a jury was unclear on whether a sentence related to one of the charges was for 30 days or 30 years. This confusion led to widespread laughter. ‘The laughter allowed the jurors to release some tension, while also allowing them to acknowledge they had made an error – so they could move forward with that error corrected,’ Keyton says.

    ‘Laughter is one way of dealing with ambiguity and tension in situations where a group is attempting to make consequential decisions and informal power dynamics are in play,’ Keyton says. ‘There are very few opportunities to see group decision making, with major consequences, in a public setting,’ Keyton explains. ‘It is usually done in private, such as in corporate board meetings or judicial proceedings. But laughter is something that occurs frequently, and not only because something is funny. Nobody in the jury was laughing at jokes.’

9. Loading up on berries a smart way to boost brain function

    “A study presented at the American Chemical Society national meeting Monday concludes blueberries, strawberries and Amazonian acai berries act as a “housekeeper” to recycle toxic proteins linked to age-related memory loss and decline in mental function, said Shibu Poulose. The berries help fuel the body’s own scrubbers that remove toxic chemicals before they can do damage, according to the study.”

10. Moderate Exercise Enhances Connectivity in Brain Circuits

    “A group of “professional couch potatoes,” as one researcher described them, has proven that even moderate exercise – in this case walking at one’s own pace for 40 minutes three times a week – can enhance the connectivity of important brain circuits, combat declines in brain function associated with aging and increase performance on cognitive tasks.

    The study, in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, followed 65 adults, aged 59 to 80, who joined a walking group or stretching and toning group for a year. All of the participants were sedentary before the study, reporting less than two episodes of physical activity lasting 30 minutes or more in the previous six months. The researchers also measured brain activity in 32 younger (18- to 35-year-old) adults.

    Rather than focusing on specific brain structures, the study looked at activity in brain regions that function together as networks.

    ‘Almost nothing in the brain gets done by one area, it’s more of a circuit,’ said University of Illinois psychology professor and Beckman Institute Director Art Kramer, who led the study with kinesiology and community health professor Edward McAuley and doctoral student Michelle Voss. ‘These networks can become more or less connected. In general, as we get older, they become less connected, so we were interested in the effects of fitness on connectivity of brain networks that show the most dysfunction with age.'”

    Personal note: Coincidentally, I just wrote a short piece earlier this week about the mental costs of physical inactivity. A lot of this research has been hypothesized for a very long time, but it is still good to see that we are learning more details on how physical exercise improves brain function.

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