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.
The hippocampus is a structure found on both sides of the brain in the temporal lobes, near the ears. It plays an important role in memory and thinking about the past and future. This led a team of researchers, led by Cornelia McCormick at the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, to wonder if people with damage to both hippocampi are still capable of mind-wandering – after all, when we mind wander or day-dream, a lot of the time it is about things we’ve done or plan to do. And if these patients can mind wander, will the content of their mind-wandering thoughts be different from healthy controls?
For their new paper in the Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers shadowed 6 male patients with bilateral hippocampus damage for two days during daylight hours, occasionally prompting them to report what they were thinking about, and compared their descriptions with those obtained from 12 age-matched healthy controls over the same period. The patients with hippocampus damage mind-wandered just as much as the controls, but the form and content of their mind-wandering was very different.
Any context that encourages us to focus on a person’s body, more than their mind, is said to lead to objectification, such as when, in a previous era, a Formula One fan looked upon an attractive “grid girl” dressed in revealing clothes.
Perhaps the most serious concern about objectification is that it can lead us to disregard the rights and experiences of the objectified person. For instance, past research has shown that we’re more inclined to blame a rape victim depicted in a bikini, and more willing to (hypothetically) administer painful tablets to men and women shown wearing swim wear, rather than fully clothed.
Now a study in Cortex has taken things further by showing that volunteers’ empathy-related brain activity was diminished when they saw an objectified woman suffering social rejection, as compared with a woman who wasn’t objectified.
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.
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.
“Conferences on psychedelics are popping up everywhere, like mushrooms!” said Jakobien van der Weijden, of the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands, when I met her in Amsterdam last week. Indeed, research into the use of psychedelic (mind-altering) drugs as tools in the treatment of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and end-of-life angst, is on the increase. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, may help to alleviate symptoms of depression by altering brain activity in key areas involved in emotional processing, for example.
Now a study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, led by Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins University, has found that for mentally and physically healthy volunteers, two doses of psilocybin in conjunction with a programme of meditation and other “spiritual” practices was enough to bring about lasting, positive changes to traits including altruism, gratitude, forgiveness and feeling close to others.