“Significant loss of neurons is a normal part of ageing” and other brain cell myths

GettyImages-480406339.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

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.

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Why you’re more likely to remember something if you read it to yourself out loud

GettyImages-626070562.jpgBy guest blogger Bradley Busch

Dr. Seuss wrote “the more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go”. The trouble is, we forget so much of what we read. Is there a way to read that makes it more likely we’ll remember things?

Keen to answer this question, researchers Noah Farrin and Colin MacLeod, from the University of Waterloo in Ontario Canada, ran a study published in Memory. Their results shed new light on how to study more effectively.

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Belief in our moral superiority is the most irrational self-enhancing bias of all

GettyImages-185266971.jpgBy Emma Young

Most of us believe we are smarter, harder-working and better at driving than average. Clearly we can’t all be right. When it comes to moral qualities, like honesty and trustworthiness, our sense of personal superiority is so inflated that even jailed criminals consider themselves to be more moral than law-abiding citizens.

Why should the “better-than-average” effect be so pronounced for moral traits? In new work, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay at Royal Holloway, University of London have found that it’s because we’re especially irrational when it comes to evaluating moral traits. Moral superiority appears to be “a uniquely strong and prevalent form of positive illusion,” they write.

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Sorry romantics, new findings suggest love at first sight is really lust at first sight

GettyImages-BD2334-001.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Reporter: “When did you know she [Meghan Markle] was the one?”

Prince Harry: “The very first time we met”

It’s a trope of Hollywood: when two people realise in an instant that they have met the one they want to spend the rest of their lives with. In reality too, happy long-term couples will tell you, perhaps a little too smugly, and doing that gazing into each other’s eyes thing, how it was simply “love at first sight”. Mutual, of course.

We’re sorry to spoil the mood music, but a new paper in Personal Relationships – one of the first attempts to study this phenomenon scientifically – concludes that while believing one has fallen instantly in love does seem to be a genuine experience, it’s not really about love at all, but more to do with physical attraction (and it’s rarely mutual). And while people who remember having fallen in love with their partner at first sight do describe their relationship as more passionate in the present, their recall is probably little more than a “confabulated memory” – a “projection of their current feelings into the past”.

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Accessible science reporting can foster overconfidence in readers

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After reading an accessible science news story, participants were more likely to feel they had no need to consult an expert to find out more

By Alex Fradera

A scientifically informed public is a wonderful thing, and at the Digest we’re happy to be part of cultivating it. But we’d be the first to admit that many scientific issues are too complex for a single article to resolve decisively. When it comes to making consequential life decisions, it’s still important to defer to experts who can draw nuanced conclusions from looking at the big picture. But experts are increasingly denigrated, and a new study in the journal Public Understanding of Science suggests that one cause may be our easy access to information, giving us the impression that we already know all we need. Specifically, science reporting that is accessible, breezy and details-light can discourage readers from consulting experts on that topic.

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These are the therapist behaviours that are helpful or harmful, according to clients

GettyImages-594373291.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Although psychotherapy is effective for many people, it doesn’t help everyone. In fact, in some cases it can do more harm than good. And while clinical researchers publish many studies into the outcomes of different therapeutic approaches, such as CBT or psychoanalytic psychotherapy, we actually know relatively little about the specific therapist behaviours that clients find beneficial or unwelcome.

A new study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, although it involves only a small sample, has broken new ground by asking clients to provide detailed feedback on a second-by-second basis of their experience of a recent therapy session, and to explain their perspective on what took place. Intriguingly, the very same therapist behaviours were sometimes identified as helpful and at other times as a hindrance, showing just what a challenge it is to be a therapist.

“It is important to recognise that all therapists are going to make mistakes,” write Joshua Swift at Idaho State University, and his colleagues. “Perhaps the success of the session does not depend on whether errors are made but on the frequency of mistakes and how quickly therapists are able to repair them.”

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The bacteria in your gut might affect your vulnerability to PTSD

GettyImages-826555466.jpgBy Emma Young

After a traumatic experience, why do some people develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while others don’t? Work to date has found evidence that various factors play a role, including a lack of social support and low levels of the neurotransmitter neuropeptide Y (due to its role in the body’s stress response). Into this mix come new findings, reported in Psychosomatic Medicine, that an individual’s complement of gut bacteria (their gut microbiome) may contribute to their vulnerability to trauma. The researchers are now investigating whether tweaking the gut microbiome could help to prevent or treat PTSD.

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What’s different about the brains of the minority of us who feel other people’s physical pain?

fnhum-11-00507-g003By Emma Young

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.

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We are witnessing a renaissance in psychology

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The future looks bright

By Christian Jarrett

There’s been a lot of talk of the crisis in psychology. For decades, and often with the best of intentions, researchers have engaged in practices that have made it likely their results are “false positives” or not real. But that was in the past. The crisis is ending. “We do not call the rain that follows a long drought a ‘water crisis’,” write Leif Nelson at UC Berkeley and Joseph Simmons and Uri Simonsohn at the University of Pennsylvania. “We do not call sustained growth following a recession an ‘economic crisis'”.

In their paper, due for publication in the Annual Review of Psychology, the trio observe that had any psychologists been in hibernation for the last seven years, they would not recognise their field today. The full disclosure of methods and data, the pre-registration of studies, the publication of negative findings, and replication attempts – all of which help reduce risk of false positives – have increased immeasurably. “The improvements to our field have been dramatic,” they write. “This is psychology’s renaissance.”

As well giving the field of psychology a pep talk, their paper provides a useful review of how we got to this point, the reasons things are getting better, and the ongoing controversies.

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People who think they exercise less than their peers die earlier, regardless of their actual activity levels

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Adjusting for actual physical activity, individuals who perceived themselves as less active than others were up to 71 per cent more likely to die in the follow-up period

By guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), physical inactivity is the fourth-leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths around the world annually. Readers of this blog need no convincing that it’s important to be active every day. But is spending more time on it enough to reduce the risk of early death? Not necessarily. How we perceive this activity turns out to be just as important. We learn of this from the authors of an intriguing study in Health Psychology devoted to physical activity and mortality.

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