Neuroscientists use neurofeedback to erase fear in the brain

ThinkstockPhotos-488470018.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Imagine a person is terrified of dogs because they once suffered a terrible bite. Following long-established techniques, their psychologist might gradually expose them to dogs in a safe setting, until their fear gradually faded away. This “exposure therapy” can be effective but it has some serious drawbacks, including the fact that the person might at first find it traumatic to be close to dogs again.

What if there were a way to remove this person’s fear of dogs at a subconscious level, without the need for any traumatic exposure? Such an approach has now come much closer to clinical reality thanks to a new study reported recently in Nature Human Behaviour. The findings suggest that neurofeedback can be used to unlearn a fear by pairing relevant non-conscious neural activity with a reward, such as money. Significant technical hurdles remain before this becomes a real-life treatment, but it’s an exciting breakthrough.  Continue reading “Neuroscientists use neurofeedback to erase fear in the brain”

Many of the same genes that influence our personality also affect our mental health

Prototype of womenBy Christian Jarrett

We know from twin and family studies that our personality is to a large degree – probably around 40 per cent – inherited. Geneticists are busy trying to find the specific gene variants involved, but because each one on its own only exerts a modest influence, this is challenging research requiring huge samples. A new study in Nature Genetics has made a significant contribution, using the technique of Genome Wide Analysis to look for genetic variants that correlate with personality. The researchers led by Min-Tzu Lo at the University of California, San Diego have identified variations in six genetic loci that correlate with different personality trait scores, five of which were previously unknown. In a separate analysis, the researchers also showed that many of the genetic variants involved in personality overlap with those involved in the risk of developing mental health disorders.

Continue reading “Many of the same genes that influence our personality also affect our mental health”

Researchers chucked litter on the streets of New York and Bern to see if anyone would intervene

Trash can in New York CityBy Alex Fradera

To maintain pleasant public spaces requires that we all implicitly agree to certain civil behaviours, like pocketing our chocolate wrappers rather than leaving them strewn on the pavement, or turning the stereo down after eleven. But when these implicit agreements are too frequently ignored they can lose their force entirely, jeopardising the social order. To keep things together, one or more of us need to hold any miscreants to account… but who wants that hassle? A new paper in the journal Rationality and Society explores real-life littering norm enforcers, taking us from the streets of Switzerland to the New York underground.

Continue reading “Researchers chucked litter on the streets of New York and Bern to see if anyone would intervene”

Experiencing passionate love linked with more belief in free will AND determinism

Two woman holding their hands in summer sunny dayBy Christian Jarrett

Psychologists have become very interested in the causes and consequences of our beliefs about free will.  For instance, many consider that progress in neuroscience is likely to undermine our belief in free will (though this has been challenged). And in terms of consequences, less belief in free will has been shown to affect our own behaviour and judgments, for example increasing our tendency to cheat, and making us more lenient towards other people’s criminal culpability.

One unexplored issue is how experiencing deep, romantic love is likely to affect our belief in free will – or indeed vice versa. A new series of online studies in Consciousness and Cognition has made a start, looking at whether thinking about a more passionate versus less passionate relationship is linked with a greater or lesser belief in free will and, separately, stronger or lesser belief in determinism (the idea that the future is pre-determined and beyond our control). The answer, it turns out, is both. Thinking about a more intense passionate love affairs tends to go hand in hand with stronger beliefs in free will and stronger beliefs in determinism.  Continue reading “Experiencing passionate love linked with more belief in free will AND determinism”

Brain training may be harmful to some aspects of memory performance

Brain lifting bar illustrationBy Christian Jarrett

Much attention has been focused recently on whether brain training programmes have the far-reaching benefits claimed by their commercial purveyors. Brain training usually involves completing exercises on computer to strengthen your working memory – essentially your ability to hold in mind and process multiple items of information at once (“cognitive training” would be a more apt name). The argument put forward by brain training companies like Lumosity and Posit Science, is that working memory is such a fundamental mental process that if you boost your working memory capacity through training, then you will experience wide-ranging benefits, even in ostensibly unrelated activities, such as in your performance at work. However, a comprehensive review published earlier this year concluded that there is in fact inadequate evidence to justify such bold claims. Now a study in Memory and Cognition brings even worse news for brain training enthusiasts – compared to control conditions, working memory training was actually found to worsen performance on a test of recognition memory. Continue reading “Brain training may be harmful to some aspects of memory performance”

The Psychology of Eye Contact, Digested

eye-contact-giphyBy Christian Jarrett

Many of our relationships begin with that moment when our eyes meet and we realise the other person is looking right at us. Pause for a second and consider the intensity of the situation, the near-magical state of two brains simultaneously processing one another, each aware of being, at that very instant, the centre of the other’s mental world. Psychologists have made some surprising discoveries about the way that mutual gaze, or the lack of it, affects us mentally and physically and how we relate to each other. Here we digest the fascinating psychology of eye contact, from tiny babies’ sensitivity to gaze to the hallucination-inducing effects of prolonged eye-staring.

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The Power of Negative Thinking

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-18-20-33Our editor’s pick of the 10 best psychology and neuroscience links spotted in the last week:

The Power of Negative Thinking
New BBC Radio 4 series presented by writer Oliver Burkeman.

A Maturing Picture of Emotion
At The Psychologist, Louisa Lawrie and Louise Phillips on how we process emotions in ourselves and others as we age.

It Is Pretty Easy to Get Art Experts to Fall for Fakes
Simon Oxenham aka Neurobonkers makes his debut on Science of Us.

Continue reading “The Power of Negative Thinking”

Why are some of us better at handling contradictory information than others?

Pros versus cons as vector illustration with speech bubblesBy Alex Fradera

Imagine it: you’re happily surfing through your social media feeds – or what we nowadays call your filter bubble – when some unexpected perspectives somehow manage to penetrate. After you “like” the latest critique of police power, for instance, you come across an article arguing that cracking down on crime can benefit minority neighborhoods. Or, elbowing its way into a crowd of articles celebrating trickle-down economics, you encounter a study showing higher taxes boost growth. What happens next? In new research in Contemporary Educational Psychology, Gregory Trevors and his colleagues looked at how reading conflicting information can push our emotional buttons, and lead us either towards resistance or a chance to learn.

Continue reading “Why are some of us better at handling contradictory information than others?”

Why do we enjoy reality TV? Researchers say it’s more about empathy than humiliation

10060586965_48caa648e4_kBy guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski

Television programs portraying ordinary people in unexpected situations are almost as old as the medium of television itself. First aired in 1984, Candid Camera is often seen as a prototype of the reality show. Its premise was simple – unsuspecting people were confronted with unusual, funny situations and filmed with hidden cameras. However, the genre exploded as a phenomenon in the late 1990s and 2000s with the global success of such series as Survivor, Idol, and Big Brother, and to this day many people continue to abandon their own activities for the voyeuristic other.

Reality shows have not only amassed incredible popularity but have also become an object of severe, wide-ranging criticism. Among the most serious complaints is the allegation that the shows rely on viewers’ enjoyment of the humiliation and degradation of participants. It is quite difficult to find an individual who is indifferent to such programmes. We either hate reality shows or we watch them, quite often without considering why.

Up until now, scholarly opinion on the subject has been divided. Some maintain that the shows’ appeal constitutes an extension of fictional drama, and is thus driven by positive feelings like empathy and compassion. Others claim that reality TV viewers are driven by a voyeuristic desire to intrude on others and to see them in their most private and embarrassing moments. Michal Hershman Shitrit and Jonathan Cohen from University of Haifa in Israel recently tested these contrasting perspectives for a study in the Journal of Media Psychology. Continue reading “Why do we enjoy reality TV? Researchers say it’s more about empathy than humiliation”

A bigger signature correlates with social bravado and narcissism

signature-giphy-2By Christian Jarrett

When you sign your name, do you like to fill the available space with bold strokes or is your personal scribble a more modest mark?  A group of psychologists from Uruguay, the Netherlands and Curaçao say that the answer could be a sign of your personality – from analysing the traits and signatures of 192 women and 148 men (psych students in Uruguay), they found that men and women with bigger signatures tended to score higher on “social dominance” – measured by agreement with statements like “I certainly have self confidence” and “I am not shy with strangers”. Among women only, a bigger signature also correlated with narcissism – agreement with claims like “I am a special person” and “I am going to be a great person”. Signature size was not correlated with self esteem or aggressive dominance, which is more about controlling other people for self-serving reasons.

If true, these results, published recently in the Journal of Research in Personality, would appear to provide some support for the quack field of graphology – the idea that our handwriting style reveals our personality (listed as one of the 50 great myths of psychology in the book by Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues, based in part on a decisive meta-analysis of the area published by Geoffrey Dean in 2002). But the authors of the new research are careful to argue that it is signatures specifically, not handwriting more generally, that may be revealing of personality, precisely because they are such a personal form of self expression. Continue reading “A bigger signature correlates with social bravado and narcissism”