Category: Brain

Our Brains “See” Beams Of Motion Emanating From People’s Faces Towards The Object Of Their Attention

By guest blogger Sofia Deleniv

Back in the 1970s, the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget discovered that, if you ask young children to explain the mechanics of vision as they understand them, their answers tend to reveal the exact same misconception: that the eyes emit some sort of immaterial substance into the environment and capture the sights of objects much like a projector.

Although this belief declines with age, it is still surprisingly prevalent in adults. What’s more, so-called extramission theories of vision have a long-running history dating all the way back to antiquity. The Greek philosopher Empedocles was amongst the first to suggest in the 5th century BC that our ability to see must stem from an invisible fire beaming out of our eyes to interact with our surroundings. This view was subsequently endorsed by intellectual authorities like Ptolemy and Galen.

Now, a duo of researchers behind a recent publication in PNAS think they might have found an explanation for the intuitive appeal of extramission theories. According to their paper, this worldview might just be a reflection of the mechanisms that play out within our brains when we follow other people’s gazes and track where they pay attention. This is because, to carry out this process, our brains actually conjure illusory beams of motion emanating from other’s faces — a quirk of evolution with interesting consequences.

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Here’s How The Brain Responds When We Feel Our Parents’ Joy

By Emma Young

You scrape off the panels on a lottery scratch card… and you’re a winner! Brain imaging would show a burst of activity in a region called the nucleus accumbens, in the ventral striatum, a region known to code the impact of reward-related stimuli, such as getting money. But how the brain handles so-called vicarious joy — the type you might feel if you scraped winning panels from a relative’s scratch card, or even a stranger’s — is not well understood. Now a new study, published in Cognitive, Affective & Behavioural Neuroscience, shows that while there are similarities, there are also some important differences. Notably, the participants’ brains responded differently when they won money for their mother versus their father.

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Our Brains Have Two Distinct “Beauty Centres”: One For Art And One For Faces

By Emma Young

Audrey Hepburn’s face and Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. Darcy Bussell dancing the role of Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty and The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. All of these things, and more, are widely regarded as looking beautiful. Do we have, then, a “beauty centre” in the brain that responds to something that we find visually beautiful, no matter what it is? For almost two decades, psychologists and neuroscientists have been exploring this question, without reaching a consensus. Now a new meta-analysis of existing fMRI studies on almost 1,000 people concludes that no, our brains don’t have one “beauty centre” — but two.

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Cognitive Control Helps Cheaters To Stay Honest — And Honest People To Cheat

By Emma Young

Many of us are faced with daily temptations to cheat. You might be offered the chance to download pirated music, perhaps. Or you might wonder about passing your child off as younger than they are, to avoid buying them a ticket on public transport.

As the authors of a new paper, published in PNAS, point out, several lines of research propose that cognitive control is needed for us to resolve the conflict between wanting to cheat and wanting to be honest. We need, in other words, to make an effort to rein in our impulses. However, the new work, led by Sebastian Speer at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, shows that this means different things for different people. If you’re typically honest, cognitive control can turn you into a cheat.

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When We Follow Orders To Hurt Someone, We Feel Their Pain Less Than If We Hurt Them Freely

By Emma Young

It’s one of the best-known and also controversial experiments in psychology: in 1963, Stanley Milgram reported that, when instructed, many people are surprisingly willing to deliver apparently dangerous electrical shocks to others. For some researchers, this — along with follow-up studies by the team — reveals how acting “under orders” can undermine our moral compass.

Milgram’s interpretation of his findings, and the methods, too, have been criticised. However, the results have largely been replicated in experiments run in the US, Poland, and elsewhere. And in 2016, a brain-scanning study revealed that when we perform an act under coercion vs freely, our brain processes it more like a passive action rather than a voluntary one.

Now a new study, from a group that specialises in the neuroscience of empathy, takes this further: Emilie Caspar at the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and colleagues report in NeuroImage that when we follow orders to hurt someone, there is reduced activity in brain networks involved in our ability to feel another’s pain. What’s more, this leads us to perceive pain that we inflict as being less severe. This process could, then, help to explain the dark side of obedience.

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Musings On Music: Seven Insights From Psychology

By Emma Young

Music and humans go back a very long way. The earliest accepted instruments, made from bones, appear on the European scene about 40,000 years ago. But for perhaps at least a million years before that, our ancestors had the throat architecture that in theory would have allowed them to sing.

All kinds of ideas have been put forward for why and how music came to matter so much to us. But what’s abundantly clear is that it does matter; there isn’t a society out there that doesn’t make and listen to music. And new research is now revealing all manner of psychological and neurological effects… Continue reading “Musings On Music: Seven Insights From Psychology”

Psilocybin Alters Brain Levels Of The Neurotransmitter Glutamate — And This Could Explain Why Users Experience “Ego Dissolution”

By Emma Young

Recent therapeutic trials of “classical” psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin (from magic mushrooms) or LSD, have reported benefits to wellbeing, depression and anxiety. These effects seem to be linked to a sense of “ego dissolution” — a dissolving of the subjective boundaries between the self and the wider world. However, the neurochemistry behind this effect has been unclear. Now a new paper, published in Neuropsychopharmacology, suggests that changes in brain levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate are key to understanding reports of ego dissolution — and perhaps the therapeutic effects of psychedelics.

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Parents Have More Synchronised Patterns Of Brain Activity When They’re Together

By Emily Reynolds

It’s an oft-repeated supposition that you can tell whether someone fancies you by their body language: if they mirror how you’re standing or moving, the theory goes, they might just like you back. But romantic partners don’t just have behavioural synchrony in some cases, they have brain-to-brain synchrony too.

A pattern that has also been observed in musicians and their audiences, brain-to-brain synchrony is a mirroring of neural activity between individuals or groups. And according to a new study in Scientific Reports, such synchrony in spouses could affect how they respond to their children.

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Gradual Hearing Loss “Reorganises” Brain’s Sensory Areas And Impairs Memory (In Mice)

By Emma Young

In 2011, a US-based study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with hearing loss were more likely to develop dementia. This alarming result prompted a number of follow-up studies, which have substantiated the link and further explored the risk. But the mechanism of how hearing loss raises this risk has not been clear.

Now a new study, by a team at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, offers an explanation. The researchers found that gradual hearing loss (the sort commonly experienced into older age) “profoundly” alters normal processes in the brain’s cortex and hippocampus, and that this impairs memory. This work was conducted on mice, not humans. But it provides useful new insights into what might happen in people.

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Musicians And Their Audiences Show Synchronised Patterns Of Brain Activity

By Emma Young

When a musician is playing a piece, and the audience is enjoying it, they can develop physical synchronies. Both might tap their feet, sway their bodies, or clap their hands. “Through music, the producer and the perceiver connect emotionally and behaviourally,” note the authors of a new paper, published in NeuroImage. And now this team, led by Yingying Hou at East China Normal University, has uncovered a connection right down at the neural level. The team has observed “inter-brain coherence” (IBC) — a synchronisation in brain activity — between a musician and the audience. What’s more, the strength of this coherence could be used to predict how much the audience enjoyed a piece.

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