When we think of ways to calm ourselves via our senses, the obvious is to listen to relaxing music, have a massage, or perhaps to gaze upon a rustic scene. However, evidence is growing for a far less obvious option involving the vestibular system (located in the inner ear), which detects the position and movement of the head. According to a recent study, gentle rocking helps adults to fall asleep for a nap, and to sleep more soundly during an entire night, with the researchers who conducted that research hypothesising that the effect is driven by the vestibular system. Now new exploratory work by a different team provides further hints that stimulating the vestibular system can help to calm the brain — in this case, apparently reducing anxiety.
For the new study in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, led by Florane Pasquier at the University of Caen Normandy, the 22 healthy young adult participants weren’t physically rocked. Rather, electrodes, placed behind their ears, delivered a very mild, 1mA current to stimulate the nerves that carry signals from the individual components of the vestibular system to the brain. This technique is called galvanic vestibular stimulation (GVS).
We all know the movie scene: a nervous aide has to deliver bad news to his villainous boss, stumbling over his words and incessantly apologising. For a second, it looks like he will be OK – until the boss turns around and summarily executes him.
But it turns out this phenomenon of “shooting the messenger” is not just restricted to fiction. A new paper in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General has demonstrated that we do tend to take a dim view of the bearers of bad news – even when these people are simply innocent messengers.
The power (or powerlessness) of parents to shape their children for good or ill continues to preoccupy psychologists and the public alike. Among evolutionary-minded developmental psychologists, one specific idea is that girls’ later attitudes to relationships is influenced by their fathers’ behaviour. For instance, US research has found that girls with disengaged, harsh, and often absent fathers are known to start having sex at a younger age, and to have more sexual partners. However many questions about these findings remain. For example: might other aspects of the girls’ childhoods be involved; what about genetic effects; and which aspects of poor-quality fathering are the most consequential?
A new study of pairs of sisters, published in Developmental Psychology, provides some specific answers, particularly that it is contact with a poor-quality father, not paternal absence, that affects their daughters’ later relationships, including their expectations of men, and, in turn, their sexual behaviour.
This is a bonus episode of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. Download here.
Ella Rhodes, journalist for The Psychologist magazine, delves into the growing body of research exploring aphantasia – a condition she has personal experience of. While most people can see images formed in their minds, people with aphantasia draw a blank – what might this mean for autobiographical memory, face perception and imagination?
Now a new study sheds some light into what’s going in the brain when people smoke cannabis – and it turns out that the effects can be quite different depending on the specific strain of the drug. The research, published recently in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, suggests that cannabis disrupts particular brain networks – but some strains can buffer against this disruption.
Your personality traits play an important part in how long you are likely to live, as much as, or even more than, other personal factors like your intelligence and your family’s economic background. Now a study in the Journal of Research in Personality has identified a key factor that mediates the personality-mortality link – sleep. Simply put, people with certain personality characteristics are more likely to sleep too little, or too much, or to experience greater sleepiness during the day, and in turn this raises their year-on-year risk of dying (too little or excess sleep, and poor quality sleep, have known links with various health risks, such as cardiovascular disease, depression and chronic inflammation).
“Sleep has been associated with both personality and longevity, yet [before now] no study has investigated whether sleep is a pathway linking personality to objective health outcomes,” say the researchers, led by Shantel Spears at West Virginia University.
During major bouts of anger or fear, people can end up taking extreme and sometimes violent actions. But they often say that, in the moment, they didn’t feel responsible for those actions – they “lost control” or “saw red”. In the UK, under certain circumstances, a person accused of murder can even claim that this “loss of control” led to them killing their victim. If successful, this defence can reduce charges to manslaughter.
Now the first study of its kind suggests that there is some truth to these claims. Participants put into a fearful or angry state really do seem to have a reduced sense of agency, according to a paper published recently in Experimental Brain Research, raising questions about the accountability of people going through extreme emotions.
How do we acquire our native language? Are the basics of language and grammar innate, as nativists argue? Or, as empiricists propose, is language something we must learn entirely from scratch?
This debate has a long history. To get at an answer, it’s worth setting the theories aside and instead looking at just how much information must be learned in order to speak a language with adult proficiency, argue Francis Mollica at the University of Rochester, US, and Steven Piantadosi at the University of California, Berkeley. If the amount is vast, for instance, this could indicate that it’s impracticable for it all to be learned without sophisticated innate language mechanisms. In their new paper, published in Royal Society Open Science, Mollica and Piantadosi present results suggesting that some language-specific knowledge could be innate – but probably not the kind of syntactic knowledge (the grammatical rules underlying correct word order) that nativists have tended to argue in favour of. Indeed, their work suggests that the long-running focus on whether syntax is learned or innate has been misplaced.
To win a medal of any kind at the Olympic Games takes years of training, hard work and sacrifice. Standing on an Olympic podium is widely regarded as the pinnacle of an athlete’s career. Nonetheless, only one athlete can win gold, leaving the two runner-up medallists to ponder what might have been. Intriguingly a seminal study from the 1992 Olympic Games suggested that this counterfactual thinking was especially painful for silver medallists, who appeared visibly less happy than bronze medallists. The researchers speculated that this may have been because of the different counterfactual thinking they engaged in, with bronze medallists being happy that they didn’t come fourth while silver medallists felt sad that they didn’t win gold.
However, subsequent research based on the 2000 Olympic Games did not replicate this finding: this time silver medallists were found to be happier than bronze medallists. To further muddy the waters, a study from the 2004 Games was consistent with the seminal research, finding that straight after competition, gold and bronze medallists were more likely to smile than silver medallists, with these smiles being larger and more intense.
Now further insight into the psychology of coming second or third comes via Mark Allen, Sarah Knipler and Amy Chan of the University of Wollongong, who have released their findings based on the 2016 Olympic Games. These latest results, published in Journal of Sports Sciences, again challenge that initial eye-grabbing result that suggested bronze medallists are happier than silver medallists, but they support the idea that the nature of counterfactual thinking differs depending on whether athletes come second or third.
In case you hadn’t noticed, there is an ongoing debate about the existence of differences between women’s and men’s brains, and the extent to which these might be linked to biological or to cultural factors. In this debate, a real game-changer of a study would involve the identification of clear-cut sex differences in foetal brains: that is, in brains that have not yet been exposed to all the different expectations and experiences that the world might offer. A recent open-access study published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience by Muriah Wheelock at the University of Washington and her colleagues, including senior researcher Moriah Thomason at New York University School of Medicine, claims to have done just that, hailed by the researchers themselves as “confirmation that sexual dimorphism in functional brain systems emerges during human gestation” and in various ways by the popular press as, for example, The Times of London’s headline: “Proof at last: women and men are born to be different”.
Does this study live up to the claims made by its authors and, more excitedly, those passing the message on? I think not.