Category: biological

A cartography of consciousness – researchers map where subjective feelings are located in the body

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Bodily feeling maps, from Nummenmaa et al, 2018

By guest blogger Mo Costandi

“How do you feel?” is a simple and commonly asked question that belies the complex nature of our conscious experiences. The feelings and emotions we experience daily consist of bodily sensations, often accompanied by some kind of thought process, yet we still know very little about exactly how these different aspects relate to one another, or about how such experiences are organised in the brain.  

Now, reporting their results in PNAS, a team of researchers in Finland, led by neuroscientist Lauri Nummenmaa of the University of Turku, has produced detailed maps of what they call the “human feeling space”, showing how each of dozens of these subjective feelings is associated with a unique set of bodily sensations.

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This is what happened to fathers’ hormone levels when they watched their kids play football

GettyImages-90647584.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

The effect of playing sport on men’s testosterone levels is well documented. Generally speaking, the winner enjoys a testosterone boost, while the loser experiences the opposite (though far less studied, competition unsurprisingly also affects women’s hormonal levels, though not in the same ways as men’s). The evolutionary-based explanation for the hormonal effects seen in men is that the winner’s testosterone rise acts to increase their aggression and the likelihood that they will seek out more contests, while the loser skulks off to lick their wounds. When it comes to vicarious effects of competition on men’s testosterone, however, the findings are more mixed. There’s some evidence that male sports fans show testosterone gains after seeing their teams win, but other studies have failed to replicate this finding.

A new, small study in Human Nature adds to this literature by examining the hormonal changes (testosterone and cortisol) in fathers watching their children play a football game – a situation in which you might particularly expect to see vicarious hormonal effects since it’s the men’s own kin who are involved.

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New findings explain why, if you’re sensitive to alcohol, you’re probably sensitive to sleep deprivation too

GettyImages-830297466.jpgBy guest blogger Julia Gottwald

The last time you and your class-mates or co-workers pulled an all-nighter before a deadline, you may have noticed: there are always those lucky individuals who seem to do just fine after a lack of sleep, while others feel drowsy and confused – almost like they had too much to drink. 

New research conducted at the German Aerospace Center suggests this could be because alcohol intoxication and sleep deprivation are more similar than we once thought.

In their study published recently in PNAS, Eva-Maria Elmenhorst and David Elmenhorst and their colleagues show how both affect us via a shared mechanism. And what’s more, if you’re sensitive to one, you’re likely to cope poorly with the other as well.

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Weight gain in new fathers is a “real phenomenon” that’s been subjected to a “striking lack” of research

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Potential factors contributing to paternal obesity risk, from Saxbe et al, 2018

By Christian Jarrett

The phenomenon of mothers gaining weight during and beyond pregnancy is well-researched and understood – much of it has to do with the hormonal changes that assist fetal growth and preparation for lactation. Less researched and recognised, other than through jokes about “dad bods”, is that many expectant fathers also gain weight, and that the pounds tend to stay on (one study found that fathers weigh, on average, 14 pounds more than childless men).

In Health Psychology Review, a team led by Darby Saxbe at the University of Southern California highlight the evidence for perinatal weight gain in fathers, and they review  seven potential casual mechanisms for why it happens, which they hope will stimulate further research. The lack of empirical research on this phenomenon before now “is striking”, they write.

Continue reading “Weight gain in new fathers is a “real phenomenon” that’s been subjected to a “striking lack” of research”

Systematic review finds “qualified support” for hormonal treatments for gender dysphoria in youth

GettyImages-694909590.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Clinicians treating children with gender dysphoria, the children themselves, and their parents, are faced with a dilemma – early use of puberty suppressing drugs (followed later by further hormonal treatments) will likely make it easier for the young person to gender transition in due course, and the earlier that process begins, the more effective it is likely to be. However, intervening earlier comes with the possibility that the child’s feelings of gender dysphoria would have dissipated naturally, or that they may later de-transition (that is, change their mind about wanting to transition to the other gender), leaving them with potentially irreversible bodily changes caused by the hormonal treatment.

According to a systematic review published recently in the journal Pediatrics, adding to this clinical dilemma is a dearth of quality data on the physical and psychosocial effects of hormonal treatments on gender dysphoric children, teenagers and young adults. However, the limited evidence that is available does provide “qualified support” for these treatments, the review concludes.

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Sending a supportive text to your partner can reduce their physiological stress levels, but only if you’re subtle about it

GettyImages-865821668.jpgBy Alex Fradera

The average young adult sends more than 100 texts per day, mainly to offer social support to friends and family. But until now, there has been little evidence whether it helps the recipient or not. New research in Computers in Human Behavior confirms that sending a comforting text to a partner confronted with a difficult task really can make them feel supported. But more surprisingly, the study suggests that to actually reduce their stress, it’s better to send a message that isn’t explicitly supportive.

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First systematic study of people who can give themselves goose-bumps at will

By Christian Jarrett

For most of us, goose-bumps are something that happens outside of our conscious control, either when we’re cold or afraid, or because we’ve been moved by music or poignant art. However, it seems there are a few individuals with a kind of psychophysiological super-power – they can give themselves goose-bumps at will.

For a new study, which they’ve released as a pre-print at PeerJ, a team led by James Heathers at Northeastern University, Boston, created a Facebook group with descriptions of “voluntary piloerection”, to use the technical term,  and invited anyone with this ability to complete a comprehensive questionnaire. Thirty-two voluntary goose-bumpers took part. Though the results are preliminary, this is a landmark study considering that voluntary piloerection has not previously been subject to systematic investigation, and that the scientific record contains just three prior case studies over a period of more than a century.

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Nature vs Nurture: Mothers with multiple children have an intuitive grasp of behavioural genetics

 

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Lower scores equals more accurate estimates of genetic inheritance. From Willoughby et al 2018

By Christian Jarrett

Several prominent psychologists have recently raised concerns that the “radical left” has a stranglehold on free speech and thought in our universities. The psychologists argue this includes biological denialism: claims that differences between individuals and groups are entirely the result of the biased system or mere social constructions. More generally, many commentators are horrified by the apparent resurgence of far-right ideologies and their twisted interpretation of genetic science.

It’s timely, then, that a team of researchers, led by psychologist Emily Willoughby at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, recently surveyed over 1000 online US participants, asking them about their personal circumstances, education, political orientation, and also to estimate the relative contribution of genes and the environment to variation in 21 different human traits, from eye colour to intelligence. This is probably the most detailed study to date of people’s insights into behavioural genetics, and the findings have just been published as a pre-print at the Open Science Framework.

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Men with higher testosterone levels are less into classical music and opera

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Salivary testosterone was inversely correlated with preference for “sophisticated” music in men but not women (via Doi et al, 2018)

By Christian Jarrett

What counts as music to one person, sounds to another like a headache. Some of the difference is explained by our personalities (for instance, more open-minded people prefer classical) and our thinking style (systematisers prefer heavy metal more than empathisers). What’s not been examined before now, according to a paper in Personality and Individual Differences, is the biological basis of our musical tastes.

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Finding withdrawn after major author correction: “Sex differences in human brain structure are already apparent at one month of age”

Update: Today, 15 March 2018, the authors of the research reported below have alerted us to a major correction to their analyses: read their full correction. In short, the sex differences in regional brain volumes in one-month-old infants were no longer statistically significant after controlling for sex differences in total brain volume. Much of our discussion below is now nullified because it pertained to results that were not in fact obtained.

By Alex Fradera

On average, men and women differ psychologically in small but reliable ways, such as in personality, interests, and cognitive performance, but the basis of these differences is up for debate. Are they innate or due to how we’re socialised?

Neuroscientists look for traction on this question by studying sex differences in the brain, premised on the idea that these might contribute to the observed psychological differences. However, studying the brains of adults, or even teenagers, still leads to spinning wheels, because culturally produced differences will show up in the brain too. But how about one-month old infants, the subjects of a paper published in the journal Brain Structure and Function?  Since birth, babies at this age have spent most of their time sleeping and suckling with limited eyesight, so profound socialisation effects aren’t going to be a factor. And yet, the new findings reveal that sex differences in a number of brain areas are already apparent.

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