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.
Video games do not enjoy the best of reputations. Violent games in particular have been linked with aggression, antisocial behaviour and alienation among teens. For example, one study found that playing a mere 10 minutes of a violent video game was enough to reduce helping behaviour in participants.
However, some experts are sceptical about whether games really cause aggression and, even if the games are to blame, it remains unclear what drives their harmful effects. Earlier studies identified empathy as a key trait that may be affected by violent gameplay. Now a study by Laura Stockdale at Loyola University Chicago and her colleagues in Social Affective and Cognitive Neuroscience has taken a closer look at how gamers and non-gamers differ at a neural level, uncovering evidence that suggests chronic violent gameplay may affect emotional brain processing, although more research is needed to confirm this.
Distressing conditions including PTSD, depression and anxiety have something in common: a difficulty in suppressing unwanted thoughts. Negative self-judgments and re-experienced traumas directly impact mental health and make recovery harder by intruding into the new experiences that should provide distance and a mental fresh start. Understanding what’s involved in thought suppression may therefore be one key to helping people with these conditions. Now research in Nature Communications has uncovered an important new brain process that may help explain why some people struggle to control their thoughts.
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.