When you see someone laughing hysterically, do you often find yourself laughing too? Laughter is usually extremely contagious. In fact, we are up to 30 times more likely to laugh with someone else than when alone. It’s a powerful bonding tool: we enjoy seeing other people happy, we enjoy laughing with them, and this brings us closer together.
But is this equally true for everyone, or is laughter more contagious for some people than others? For a paper in Current Biology, a team of researchers at UCL, led by Elizabeth O’Nions and César F. Lima, has investigated whether adolescent boys at risk of psychopathy are less likely to find laughter catching.
Despite the continued use of ECT, and its apparent benefits, exactly how it works remains largely unexplained. However, new clues come from a Chinese study, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, in which patients showed increased grey matter volume in the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional processing.
Basic facts about the brain are a key part of many introductory psychology courses, including information about brain cells. For instance, for years, students (and the public) have been taught that, thanks to the ageing process, the older we get, the more brain cells we lose. But as outlined in a new review in the Journal of Chemical Neuroanatomy by Christopher von Bartheld at the University of Nevada, many established facts about brain cells (like the idea we lose lots of them as we get older) have been shown by modern techniques to be misconceptions. Taken mostly from the review, here are four myths about brain cells, plus one unresolved issue.
If a friend sees you suffering and tells you “I feel your pain”, it may be more than an expression of empathy. For about a quarter of people, it could be literally true. A recent study, led by Thomas Grice-Jackson at the University of Sussex, found that 27 per cent of participants experienced so-called “mirror pain” – watching someone falling off a bicycle or receiving an injection, for instance, caused them to experience physical pain of their own.
Now in a paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the same team of researchers has explored the neurological underpinnings of mirror pain. When some people have this experience, they don’t just show more activity in the so-called “pain matrix” (the network of brain regions linked to the experience of pain), they also show unusual patterns of neural activity that suggest they struggle to distinguish other people’s experience from their own.
A process involved in neurodevelopmental disorders that we are only just beginning to understand is “compensation” – the way that a deficit can be partially or wholly masked by automatic mental processes and/or deliberate behavioural strategies. For instance, a person with dyslexia may achieve typical levels of reading ability after an earlier diagnosis, not because the disorder has gone away (subtle tests might show continuing problems in phonological processing, for example) but through the use of behavioural strategies, such as reverse-engineering a tricky word from the meaning of words around it. In a new review in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews Lucy Anne Livingston and Francesca Happé, at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, take us through what compensation might mean for autism.
Surveys and opinion polls are notoriously bad at predicting election results, as a chain of rather unexpected events last year demonstrated. These instruments usually ask people about their explicit attitudes and opinions. Often, however, these “external” proxies are not entirely representative of what a person is really thinking. For example, severalstudies have shown that implicit attitudes – that is, subtle preferences or biases outside the realm of our consciousness – can be more useful in predicting our future choices.
As scary as this may sound, there is also mounting evidence that our physiological responses can be even more accurate in revealing how we’re likely to vote. In a new paper in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers from Kingston University and the University of Essex have taken a closer look at a voting outcome in the UK that, last year, came as a surprise to a lot of people. Their findings suggest that people’s brain responses to statements about the EU were a more accurate predictor of they way they went on to vote in the Brexit referendum than their stated intentions.
A person diagnosed with psychogenic amnesia complains of serious memory problems, sometimes even forgetting who they are, without there being any apparent physical reason for their symptoms – in other words, their condition seems to be purely psychological.
It’s a fascinating, controversial diagnosis with roots dating back to Freud’s, Breuer’s and Charcot’s ideas about hysteria and how emotional problems sometimes manifest in dramatic physical ways. Today, some experts doubt that psychogenic amnesia is a real phenomenon, reasoning that there is either an undetected physical cause or the patient is fabricating their memory symptoms.
In a new paper in Brain, a team of British neuropsychologists has reported their findings from a study of 53 patients diagnosed with psychogenic amnesia – one of the largest ever studies of its kind. Michael Kopelman at Kings College, London, and his colleagues conclude that the prognosis (that is, the scope and speed of recovery) for psychogenic amnesia is better than previously realised and that there appear to be four main categories of the condition.
Some brains struck by pathology seem to stave off its effects thanks to a “cognitive reserve”: a superior use of mental resources that may be related to the way we use our brains over a lifetime, for instance through high levels of education or, possibly, learning a second language.
Bilingual people certainly seem to use their brains differently. For example, practice at switching languages has been associated with enhanced mental control. It’s even been claimed that being bilingual can stave off dementia by up to four or five years.
If true, this would have serious implications for public policy – learning a second language would be as much a desirable health behaviour as it is an educational or cultural one. But are the brain benefits of bilingualism real? The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease has published a systematic review and meta-analysis to establish the strength of the evidence base.
Hallucinating voices isn’t always distressing. While the experience is commonly associated with schizophrenia, some people – an estimated 5 to 15 per cent of the general population – hear voices that aren’t real without finding it upsetting or debilitating (they may even welcome it) and in the absence of any of the other symptoms of psychosis, such as delusions or confusion.
Now new open-access research published in Brain has revealed a perceptual advantage for this group of people: they can detect hard-to-comprehend speech sounds more quickly and easily than people who have never hallucinated a voice.
Most brain imaging studies involving transgender people or people with gender dysphoria have focused on whether their brains look more like what’s typical for the gender they identify with, rather than the gender they were assigned at birth based on their biological sex. For example, whether trans men have “masculine” brains, and trans women have more “feminine” brains.
The results have been mixed and if anything point towards trans people having brains with distinctfeatures that are neither stereotypically male or female.
A new study in Brain Imaging and Behaviour adds to this trend, showing that trans men have unusual patterns of connectivity in brain networks involved in processing of the self, as compared with male and female controls. “The present data do not support the hypothesis that sexual differentiation of the brain of individuals with gender dysphoria is in the opposite direction as their sex assigned at birth,” the researchers said, adding that the unusual connectivity patterns they found in trans men “was detected in comparison with both male and female controls, and there were no differences between the control groups”.