Sharing with others, helping people in need, consoling those who are distressed. All these behaviours can be encouraged by empathy – by understanding what other people are thinking and feeling, and sharing their emotions. Enhance empathy, especially in those who tend to have problems with it – like narcissists – and society as a whole might benefit. So how can it be done?
In fact, the cultivation of empathy is a “presumed benefit” of mindfulness training, note the authors of a new study, published in Self and Identity, designed to investigate this experimentally. People who are “mindfully aware” focus on the present moment, without judgement. So, it’s been argued, they should be better able to resist getting caught up in their own thoughts, freeing them to think more about the mental states of other people. As mindfulness courses are increasingly being offered in schools and workplaces, as well as in mental health settings, it’s important to know what such training can and can’t achieve. The new results suggest it won’t foster empathy – and, worse, it could even backfire.
“When you say it’s gonna happen now
When exactly do you mean?”
Ask a psychologist the answer to this question – posed in this case by Morrissey in TheSmiths song, How soon is now? – and she might reply “within the next three seconds”.
The idea that “now”, also known as the “subjective present”, is constrained within this time limit has proved popular. But a new evaluation in Psychological Bulletin of dozens of research papers on everything from embraces and reading poetry to tapping along to a beat concludes that there’s no good evidence for it. Our experience of the present cannot, it seems, be so strictly defined.
Mindfulness meditation seems to improve the control we have over our eyes, probably because of its known beneficial effects on attentional systems in the brain. That’s according to research published recently in Consciousness and Cognition.
When someone breaks the speed limit, we tend to explain it away as recklessness, machismo, or impatience. But new research led by Vanessa Bowden at the University of Western Australia, suggests that problems in memory, not temperament, may often be the culprit. According to a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, traffic stops and other interruptions can disrupt our ability to keep track of recent changes to the speed limit. But the research doesn’t entirely let us off the hook: when waiting at a stop, we can reduce these interfering effects by making sure we keep our attention on the road.
In this era of “fake news” and rising populism, encountering conspiracy theories is becoming a daily phenomenon. Some people usually shrug them off – they find them too simplistic, biased or far-fetched – but others are taken in. And if a person believes one kind of conspiracy theory, they usually believe others.
Psychologists are very interested in why some people are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, especially since the consequences can be harmful: for example, by avoiding getting their kids vaccinated, believers in vaccination conspiracies can harm wider public health; in other cases, a belief in a conspiracy against one’s own ethnic or religious group can foment radicalism.
One of the main differences between conspiracy believers and nonbelievers that’s cropped up in multiple studies is that nonbelievers tend to be more highly educated. For a new study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Jan-Willem Van Prooijen at VU Amsterdam has conducted two large surveys to try to dig into just what it is about being more educated that seems to inoculate against belief in conspiracy.
The human mind has been so successful in transforming the material world that it is easy to forget that it too is subject to its own constraints. From biases in our judgment to the imperfection of our memory, psychology has done useful work mapping out many of these limits, yet when it comes to the human imagination, most of us still like to see it as something boundless. But new research in the journal Cognition, on the capacity of our visual imagination, suggests that we soon hit its limits.
Some fortunate people have more “working memory” than others. It’s as if they have an extra pair of hands available for mental juggling; extremely useful for doing arithmetic and similar tasks in your head. These folk with abundant working memory capacity also tend to fare well academically and in their careers. Little surprise that “brain training” games like Lumosity and Cogmed target working memory in pursuit of these knock-on benefits (though the evidence that the training brings such benefits is weak).
What is surprising is the discovery a number of years ago that mentally dextrous people with greater working memory capacity seem to be particularly susceptible to “brain freeze” or choking under pressure.
For a new study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, researchers at the University of Chicago and Michigan State University attempted to find out more about why this happens. Their results suggest that actually it’s only a subgroup of high working memory people who have this problem and it’s because of their high distractibility. These high ability chokers or brain freeze victims are “typically reliant on their higher working memory resources for advanced problem solving” but their poor attentional control renders them easily distracted by anxiety, causing their usual mental deftness to break down when the pressure is on.
Daniel Kish’s life reads like the origins story out of a super hero comic book. To treat his cancer, doctors removed both Kish’s eyes when he was aged one. Later, as a child, he taught himself to echolocate like a bat. Using the echoes from his own clicking sounds he detects the world around him. He can even cycle busy streets and it’s his life’s mission to empower other blind children by teaching them echolocation or what he calls flashsonar.
Psychologists studying the skill have found that it is eminently teachable, for blind people and the sighted. But what’s also become clear is that there is a huge amount of variation between individuals: some people, blind or sighted, seem to pick it up easily while others struggle. A new study in Experimental Brain Research is among the first to try to find out which mental abilities, if any, correlate with echolocation aptitude. The findings could help screening to see who is likely to benefit from echolocation and offer clues to how to help those who struggle.
In the UK we’re familiar with the practical implications of increasing population density: traffic jams, longer waits to see a doctor, a lack of available housing. What many of us probably hadn’t realised is how living in crowded environment could be affecting us at a deep psychological level, fostering in us a more future-oriented mindset or what evolutionary psychologists call a “slow life history” strategy.
In their paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Oliver Sng at the University of Michigan and his colleagues present a range of evidence that shows how this strategy plays out in the more patient ways that we approach our relationships, parenting and economic decisions. In essence, the researchers are proposing that the presence of greater numbers of other people in close proximity prompts us to invest in the future as way to compete more effectively.