We all differ in how much empathic brain activity we experience in response to witnessing somebody else in pain. For instance, hospital physicians, who are regularly exposed to other people’s suffering, tend to show a dampened response – perhaps a pragmatic necessity to cope in the job, and might along the way explain the blasé gallows humour seen in the profession. If these differences are found within a job, perhaps they also occur within a lifestyle choice, such as one that involves playing with and consenting to painful activities, such as bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism, typically abbreviated to BDSM.
As they report in Neuropsychologia, Siyang Luo at Sun Yat-Sen University and Xiao Zhang at Jinan University explored this issue by first running a preliminary online study on a Chinese BDSM web forum, finding that across genders and BDSM roles, female submissives showed the clearest differences from controls in terms of their having a diminished response to other people’s pain and lower scores on aspects of an empathy questionnaire. (Female doms didn’t show a reliably different response to pain, and male BDSM practitioners barely differed from controls.)
Educational neuromyths include the idea that we learn more effectively when taught via our preferred “learning style”, such as auditory or visual or kinesthetic (hear more about this in our recent podcast); the claim that we use only 10 per cent of our brains; and the idea we can be categorised into left-brain and right-brain learners. Belief in such myths is rife among teachers around the world, according to several surveys published over the last ten years. But does this matter? Are the myths actually harmful to teaching? The researchers who conducted the surveys believe so. For instance, reporting their survey results in 2012, Sanne Dekker and her colleagues concluded that “This [belief in neuromyths] is troublesome, as these teachers in particular may implement wrong brain-based ideas in educational practice”. (Full disclosure: I’ve made similar arguments myself.)
But now this view has been challenged by a team at the University of Melbourne, led by Jared Horvath, who have pointed out that this is merely an assumption: “Put simply,” they write in their new paper in Frontiers in Psychology, “there is no evidence to suggest neuromyths have any impact whatsoever on teacher efficacy or practice”.
Horvath’s team tested the assumption that belief in neuromyths harms teaching by comparing belief in the neuromyths among 50 award-winning teachers from the UK, USA and Australia with the belief in these same myths shown by hundreds of trainee and non-award-winning teachers (as recorded in the earlier surveys) – the logic being that if belief in neuromyths has an adverse effect on teaching then presumably the award-winning teachers will show significantly lower rates of endorsement of the myths than their less celebrated counterparts.
From an evolutionary perspective, altruistic behaviour is still a bit of mystery to psychologists, especially when it comes with a hefty cost to the self and is aimed at complete strangers.
One explanation is that altruism is driven by empathy – experiencing other people’s distress the same way as, or similar to, how we experience our own. However, others have criticized this account – most notably psychologist Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Their reasons are many, but among them is the fact that our empathy tends to be greatest for people who are most similar to us, which would argue against empathy driving the kind of altruism that involves the giver making personal sacrifices for strangers.
Hindering research into this topic is the challenge of measuring empathy objectively and devising a reliable laboratory measure of altruism (including one that overcomes most volunteers’ natural inclination to want to present themselves as morally good).
A new study in Psychological Science overcomes these obstacles by using a neural measure of empathy and by testing a rare group of people whose altruistic credentials are second to none: individuals who have donated one of their kidneys to a complete stranger.
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.
The phrase “sexual objectification” began popping up only 50 years ago, but it’s now ubiquitous, reflecting our concern that seeing someone sexually amounts to perceiving them as eye candy or a piece of meat. More recently, psychologists and neuroscientists have gathered evidence that sexualisation can literally lead us to perceive people less as whole humans and more as an assemblage of parts – the same way that the mind normally processes objects.
But the picture is complicated by new work published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin from a team mainly drawn from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Their experiments on the impact of various forms of sexualisation on the perception of the body find that objectification does not necessarily follow.
People who’ve had an out-of-body experience (OBE) report that their conscious awareness shifted outside their physical body – often upwards, so they felt like they were floating above their own head. It’s thought that OBEs occur when the brain fails to properly integrate data from the different senses, including vision, touch, proprioception (the sense of where the limbs and other body parts are located in space) and from the vestibular system (organs in the inner ear that monitor head orientation, balance and motion).
Previous research has mostly focused on the role of vision and touch – for example by triggering the illusion of viewing one’s own body – but the vestibular system has largely been neglected. If it does play an important role we should expect that problems with the vestibular system – which often present as feelings of dizziness – lead to OBEs, but do they?
Historical case studies suggested that they might. And now, published in Cortex, the first systematic study of patients referred to a neurological specialist because of dizziness has found that they can.
Sports coaches are always on the look out for new ideas to improve their players’ performance and it’s understandable that insights from psychology and neuroscience hold particular appeal. However, as with other applied fields, it’s not easy to translate neuroscience findings into useful sports interventions. There are also a lot of charlatans who use the mystique of the brain to sell quack sports products and programmes. Without specialist neuroscience training, coaches might struggle to distinguish genuine brain insights from neuro-based flimflam.
It’s in this context that a group of researchers, led by Richard Bailey at the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education in Berlin, thought it would be useful to see which scientifically challenged practices sports coaches use, and whether they are able to identify brain facts from myths. Previous work has identified widespread belief in neuromyths among several other groups, including psychology students, music teachers and neuroscience graduates, but this is the first time sports coaches have been tested.
Reporting their results in Frontiers in Psychology, Bailey and his colleagues found that sports coaches endorsed, on average, just over 40 per cent of the six brain myths presented to them. “The figure is substantial enough to warrant concern,” according to Bailey and his colleagues “because it is likely that these beliefs will shape coaching philosophy and practice.”
Brain science is mysterious and sexy and people are more inclined to believe claims that contain superfluous neuroscience references or neuro-imagery – an effect referred to as “the seductive allure of neuroscience” or “SANE” (that’s the short story, however the literature on the effect is messy, to say the least, with a mix of successful and failed replications).
One context where we might expect the seductive allure of neuroscience to be particularly problematic is in the emerging field of educational neuroscience, which seeks to use findings about the brain to improve educational practice. While the field holds promise, experts have warned about the dangers of neuro-jargon lending a confusing veneer of credibility to educational practices that lack an evidence base (one prominent example would be Brain Gym which has been widely criticised by neuroscientists and psychologists).
Until recently, however, no one had looked to see whether the seductive allure of neuroscience applies specifically in an educational context. A research group at the University of Minnesota has now attempted to plug this gap. They recently reported in the British Journal of Educational Psychology their “major finding” that the public find popular articles about the psychology of learning more credible when they contain extraneous neuroscience.
It is possible to pay attention effortlessly, your mind “pulled by the inherent nature of the object of experience”. In fact, with practice, doing so can “lead you to experience inner silence, tranquility, peace and transcendence”. That’s according to a research team led by Michelle Mahone at the California School of Professional Psychology, who have published in Brain and Cognition what they describe as the first neuroimaging study of people in the midst of Transcendental Meditation (TM).
The 16 women volunteers (average age 60) had practised TM for an average of 34 years, meaning they had amassed around 36,000 hours of meditation practice. The researchers scanned the meditators’ brains while they lay resting with their eyes closed and then while they meditated for 10 minutes. The volunteers’ extensive mastery at meditation allowed them to achieve “bliss”, “deep restfulness” and “clear transcending” despite the noise and discomfort of the brain scanner.
Compared with rest, the scans showed that while meditating the volunteers exhibited increased activity at the front of their brains (in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus), alongside reduced activity in the cerebellum and the pons – structures at the back of the brain and in the brain stem. These latter activity reductions have not been observed in brain scan studies of other forms of meditation that involve focused attention (for example on one’s breathing) or open monitoring (paying mindful non-judgmental attention to one’s thoughts and sensations).
The researchers said their findings were consistent with the idea that Transcendental Meditation involves a unique form of effortless attention, in which “the attention is guided by the inherent pleasure of inner transcendence, rather than through cognitive evaluation and control”. The increase in frontal brain activity reflects the engagement with a specific experience, they said, while the minimal control required was reflected in reduced activity in the cerebellum and pons.
Sceptical readers may feel that the researchers are guilty of “reverse inference” – making assumptions about the meaning of the brain activity patterns that they observed. Mahone’s team said further research is needed to directly compare brain activity during different meditation practices.
Basic neuroscience teaches us how individual brain cells communicate with each other, like neighbours chatting over the garden fence. This is a vital part of brain function. Increasingly however neuroscientists are zooming out and studying the information processing that happens within and between neural networks across the entire brain, more akin to the complex flow of digital information constantly pulsing around the globe.
This has led them to realise the importance of what they call “brain entropy” – intense complexity and irregular variability in brain activity from one moment to the next, also marked by greater long-distance correlations in neural activity. Greater entropy, up to a point, is indicative of more information processing capacity, as opposed to low entropy – characterised by orderliness and repetition – which is seen when we are in a deep sleep or coma.
A new study in Scientific Reports is the first to examine whether and how ingesting a psychostimulant – in this case caffeine – affects brain entropy. The results show caffeine causes a widespread increase in cerebral entropy. This dose of neural anarchy is probably welcome, especially considered in light of another new paper, in PLOS One, which finds greater brain entropy correlates with higher verbal IQ and reasoning ability.