PsychNews: Sep. 26 – Oct. 2

1. How much should we practice? by Jonah Lehrer

    ” We spend a lot of time trying to improve our perceptions on very particular tasks, whether it’s a jet fighter pilot learning how to fly or a baseball player learning to hit a fastball or child with dyslexia learning how to read. Although we currently assume that the only way to improve is to constantly practice – in technical speak, the act of practicing provides a “permissive signal” that allows the accompanying stimulation to “drive learning” – this research demonstrates that we can also improve through mere exposure. Furthermore, our obsession with practice comes with serious drawbacks, since the tedium of practice can prove discouraging for beginners. And so we quit the piano and give up on our reading lessons, because we can’t stand the training regimen.

    This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can just play Yo Yo Ma in the background and expect to master the cello, or put the textbook underneath the pillow and expect to ace the algebra test. We still need to practice. We just might not need to practice as much as we think.”

2. Neural Exercises Boost The Aging Brain

    “Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and aging at UCLA, says there are ways that we can reduce the effects of this kind of memory loss by exercising our brains—training our neurons the same way that we can exercise our muscles at the gym using relatively simple techniques. He distills the basics of these down to three concepts: ‘look, snap, connect.’

    ‘”Look stands for focusing attention. The biggest reason that people don’t remember things is they’re simply not paying attention,” he says. “You’re running outside the house and you can’t remember whether you did some minor task because you weren’t paying attention. Snap is a reminder to create a mental snapshot of information you want to recall later. Many of us find it easier to remember visual information than other types of information. And then the third step connect, is just a way of linking up those mental snapshots, so an example would be if I’m running out quickly and I have two errands, pick up eggs and go to the post office. I might visualize in my mind and egg with a stamp on it.'”

Personal note: I mention a very similar technique in my article, “Are You A List Maniac? How To Build A Better Memory

3. Structure your world for success by thinking abstractly by Art Markman, cognitive scientist, University of Texas

    “When you work to create an environment that supports your long-term goals, you are engaging in prospective self-control. This kind of planning for the future helps you to achieve your goals by minimizing the number of temptations that cross your path and by helping you to prepare in advance for those that do emerge.

    A paper by Kentaro Fujita and Joseph Roberts in the November, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology examines one factor that may make people more likely to engage in this advance planning.

    These authors suggest that when people think about a situation more abstractly, they may be more willing to structure their world in ways that help them to satisfy long-term goals than when they think about a situation concretely.”

Personal note: Later in the article it mentions how researchers get participants to think more abstractly by asking them the “Why?” behind their actions rather than the “How?”

4. Study: Playing Violent Games Helps with Stress and Depression

    “Research concluded: ‘As with aggressive behavior, the evidence did not support that short-term randomized exposure to violent video games either increased or decreased hostile feelings or depression. By contrast long-term exposure to violent video games was associated with reduced hostile feelings and depression following a stressful task. Subjects who were exposed to violent video games were not less aggressive, but they were less hostile and depressed.’

    It was also noted that violent videogames could possibly considered as “mood management tools,” which could help treat mood disorders and other health-related issues.”

5. For First Time, Monkeys Recognize Themselves in the Mirror, Indicating Self-Awareness

    “Typically, monkeys don’t know what to make of a mirror. They may ignore it or interpret their reflection as another, invading monkey, but they don’t recognize the reflection as their own image. Chimpanzees and people pass this “mark” test—they obviously recognize their own reflection and make funny faces, look at a temporary mark that the scientists have placed on their face or wonder how they got so old and grey.
    Click here to find out more!

    For 40 years, scientists have concluded from this type of behavior that a few species are self-aware—they recognize the boundaries between themselves and the physical world.

    Because chimps, our closest relatives, pass the test, while almost all other primate species fail it, scientists began to discuss a “cognitive divide” between the highest primates and the rest.

    But a study published today (Sept. 29) by Luis Populin, a professor of anatomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shows that under specific conditions, a rhesus macaque monkey that normally would fail the mark test can still recognize itself in the mirror and perform actions that scientists would expect from animals that are self-aware.”

6. We should be music testing athletes!

    “Waterhouse, Hudson and Edwards (2009) took music and artificially sped it up and slowed it down (in 10% increments). They found that people’s performance (measured in cycles/minute) increased as the tempo increased. Sure, sure, we all knew music makes workouts more enjoyable – but it appears it can actually deliver benefits.”

7. Compassion and Civic Responsibility by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

8. Inattention to detail

    Neuroskeptic has excellent coverage of the recent headline-making study on the genetics of ADHD that was overly-hyped as the ‘first direct genetic link’ to the disorder and overly-slammed as a drug company ploy.

    For example, BBC News has a report on the study where you can see researcher Anita Thapar making some unrealistic claims for the significance of the interesting-but-preliminary study while the science-retardant child psychologist Oliver James counters by cherry picking evidence (and not even very accurately).

    Neuroskeptic does a great job of untangling the actual import of the research and discusses why the finding of copy-number variations or CNVs in about 16% of the ADHD kids compared to 7.5% of the controls is neither a ‘direct genetic link’ nor evidence against the idea that the condition is ‘socially constructed’.”

9. Rediscovering Your Motivational Innocence

    “Say, you and I happen to be on the same metro car. I have flip-flops on. You have stiletto shoes on. The train car sways, you lose balance and nail my foot down to the floor with your stiletto heel. Now I need reconstructive surgery, develop a limp and chronic pain, and get depressed. My wife leaves me. My life is ruined. We bump into each other again. I tell you the story. Should you feel guilty? Of course not. Regretful, but not guilty. It’s clear you had no motive to hurt me. But I got hurt.

    Life’s chaotic like that: a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and you have a tornado in Arkansas. Should we blame the butterfly for the devastation of a tornado? Of course, not. But, in a way, we do. We are sticklers for cause-and-effect.

    If you happen to be involved in the causal chain of events, let alone if your behavior is an immediate antecedent of some kind of mishap, you blame yourself. So, if you are the one who stepped on my toes, you conclude that if you had been more balanced, you would not have injured me and my life would not have been ruined. If you are a self-loathing, CNN-watching butterfly in the Amazon, then you’d conclude that if you had only not flapped your wings, that trailer park would be still standing.

    This is a very formal way of looking at causality. Everything is inter-related, inter-connected, and inter-twined. Any event is a collision of multiple variables. Each variable is a cause of some effect. The question is which one is the necessary and sufficient cause/reason behind the mistake you are beating yourself up for.”

10. Counter-Intuition by Daniel Simons, experimental psychologist, University of Illinois

    “Daniel Simons is the head of Visual Cognition Lab at the University of Illinois. His recent research explores the cognitive underpinnings of our experience of a stable and continuous visual world. For example, his studies reveal the surprising extent of inattentional blindness — the failure to notice unusual and salient events when attention is otherwise engaged and when the events are unexpected. More broadly, he tries to identify those aspects of our environment that automatically capture attention and those that go unnoticed.”

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