Thinking like a scientist is really hard, even for scientists. It requires putting aside your own prior beliefs, evaluating the quality and meaning of the evidence before you, and weighing it in the context of earlier findings. But parking your own agenda and staying objective is not the human way.
Consider that even though scientific evidence overwhelming supports the theory of evolution, a third of Americans think the theory is “absolutely false”. Similarly, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has contributed to climate change, yet around a third of Americans doubt it.
We Brits are just as blinkered. In a recent survey, over 96 per cent of teachers here said they believed pupils learn better when taught via their preferred learning style, even though scientific support for the concept is virtually non-existent. Why is it so hard to think like a scientist? In a new chapter in the Psychology of Learning and Motivation book series, Priti Shah at the University of Michigan and her colleagues have taken a detailed look at the reasons, and here we pull out five key insights:
After chemotherapy treatment, many patients say their mind has been affected. For example they describe symptoms such as feeling confused, memory problems and difficulty concentrating – a phenomenon that has been dubbed “chemobrain” (Cancer Research UK has more information).
The causes are little understood. Are these apparent neuropsychological effects due to a direct physical effect of chemotherapy on the brain? Or could it be the stress and worry involved in chemotherapy that is responsible? Perhaps it’s both. To find out more, Mi Sook Jung at Chungnam National University in South Korea, and colleagues, conducted repeated brain scans and neuropsych tests with breast cancer patients undergoing chemo and compared them with similar cancer patients not on chemo and healthy controls. Reporting their results in Brain Imaging and Behaviour, the researchers hope a better understanding of the nature of “chemobrain” and its causes will make it possible for health professionals to offer patients better support and care.
In the early 1950s, while investigating rabbits’ sense of smell by recording the activity of their brain cells, the scientist Lord Adrian noticed something curious. As his team mixed up odours of increasing strength, to see at what point the rabbits’ neurons fired in response, they found the critical threshold appeared around the same point that they were able to smell the odour themselves: in other words, this suggested that the smell had become noticeable to animal and man at the same time.
On publication of the research, Lord Adrian mentioned his observation, but it didn’t provoke a serious response, presumably because informed scientists knew that the human sense of smell is generally pathetic. Everyone knew… but they knew wrong. In a new review in Science, John McGann, who runs the Rutgers Laboratory on the Neurobiology of Sensory Cognition, takes us through the historical misunderstandings to reach the truth about what the human nose knows.
Exercising self-control leaves you feeling drained. That’s what many of us in the West believe and it’s what we seem to experience – think of the fatigue after a morning spent dealing with difficult clients or focused on spreadsheets on a computer screen. But in Indian culture, there is a widespread belief that mental effort is energising – that the more concentration and self-control you expend in one situation, the more invigorated you will feel for the next challenge.
Psychology has, so far, mostly backed up our Western intuitions. Over 100 studies – nearly all conducted in the West – have shown that participants are less able to resist temptation or exercise mental focus after completing a mentally taxing task, an effect that researchers call “ego depletion”. But now a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has tested Indian participants and it shows for the first time a “reverse ego-depletion effect” – the more difficult an initial mental task, the better participants performed on a subsequent challenge.
The failure to reproduce established psychology findings on renewed testing, including some famous effects, has been well-publicised and has led to talk of a crisis in the field. However, psychology is a vast topic and there’s a possibility that the findings from some sub-disciplines may be more robust than others, in the sense of replicating reliably, even in unfavourable circumstances, such as when the participants have been tested on the same effect before.
A new paper currently available as a preprint at PsyArXiv has tested whether this might be the case for nine key findings from cognitive psychology, related to perception, memory and learning. Rolf Zwaan at Erasumus University Rotterdam and his colleagues found that all nine effects replicated reliably. “These results represent good news for the field of psychology,” they said.
Surely creativity is about freedom. Dropping your inhibitions – maybe with the help of a few substances – and letting ideas writhe free from the unconscious unfiltered. What to make then of the research showing that creativity is associated with higher levels of executive functioning – the mind’s suite of control processes – which seem to help by inhibiting irrelevant information and combining the rest in novel ways? Does it mean you can use this mental control to make yourself perform more creatively? According to a new study in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts involving jazz pianists the answer may depend in part on your creative experience.
According to a new paper in Developmental Psychology, children as young as 12-months-old can be taught to get better at focusing their attention – which may help with their acquisition of language, and other types of learning. This new study involved typical, healthy infants. But the findings could also be taken as support for the idea that interventions aimed at children showing problems with attention (who may go on to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, for example) can, and should, start at a very young age.
Openness to Experience is one of the so-called Big Five personality traits and, among other things, it’s associated with being more creative, curious and appreciative of the arts. Like all the traits, where you score has important implications – for instance, there’s recent evidence that being more Open is associated with having more “cognitive reserve”, which gives you protection from the harmful effects of dementia.
Openness correlates with, but is distinct from, intelligence, and psychologists are trying to find out more about what the basis of Openness is at a cognitive and neural level. A new paper in Journal of Research in Personality shows that the trait runs deep, even affecting a very basic aspect of visual perception. It seems Open people literally see the world differently.
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.