Psychologists are figuring out why some of us find echolocation easier than others

Blindman's BluffBy Christian Jarrett

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.

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New study fails to find any psychological benefits of volunteering, but that doesn’t mean you should stop

The London 2012 Olympic VolunteersBy Alex Fradera

Volunteer! Universities, community groups and even the NHS recommend it, citing benefits for society and also yourself. The claimed personal outcomes include boosting your health and subjective wellbeing, but while the former is slowly gathering experimental backing, the wellbeing research is overwhelmingly correlational, making it hard to prove that volunteering is causing the gains (it’s certainly plausible, for instance, that happier people are simply more inclined to give up their time for free). Now the journal Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology has published a more robust test: a randomised study. The researchers looked for evidence to support the mental wellbeing benefits from volunteering … but they looked in vain.

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Attractive people have shorter relationships and are more interested in alternative partners

87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Scarlett Johansson announced her split from Romain Dauriac this January

By Christian Jarrett

You probably won’t be reaching for your violin too quickly but a series of new studies provide compelling evidence that beauty is a kind of “relationship liability”. While more physically attractive people have a clear advantage when it comes to finding partners, the results suggest that their relationships are more likely to breakdown, at least in part because they take greater interest in alternative partners, especially when dissatisfied in their current relationship.

The results add further nuance to our understanding of how physical beauty impacts people’s lives. While good-looking folk seem to enjoy many advantages in life, on average, such as higher pay, more happiness and others assuming they are friendly and intelligent, it seems there are complicating factors: jealousy is one, and this new research, published in Personal Relationships, suggests that less stability in their romantic relationships is another.

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Five studies that help explain why social drinking is so rewarding

David Cameron And Chinese President Xi Jinping Visit Princes Risborough PubBy Christian Jarrett

For millennia, humans have enjoyed using alcohol as a social lubricant. The reasons seem obvious at first. Most of us have had a drink or two that’s put us at ease, helped us lose our inhibitions, lifted our mood. And yet, literally for decades through the last century, psychologists and other scientists struggled to find evidence for what they termed the “tension reduction theory” that proposed alcohol was rewarding because of its relaxing, mood-enhancing effects. In the lab, alcohol often had no effect or even made people feel worse.

A new review in Behaviour Research and Therapy helps make sense of this mismatch between real life and the lab. Too much of the early research presumed alcohol’s effects are straightforward, that if you give a dose of alcohol to a person sat alone in a psych lab, that its pharmacological effects will kick in and make them feel jollier and less anxious.

The reality, as Michael Sayette of the University of Pittsburgh explains in his review, is that alcohol’s rewarding effects interact in complex ways with our thoughts and emotions and the social situations we find ourselves in. To uncover why social drinking is so rewarding, researchers have had to develop more sophisticated, realistic experiments. Here I’ve pulled out five of the key insights from Sayette’s review that help explain why so many of us find alcohol the perfect companion when we’re socialising.

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First ever study into how spaceflight changes brain structure

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Top row shows brain changes after bed rest; bottom row brain changes with spaceflight. Orange = increased grey matter, blue = decrease. Via University of Michigan

By Christian Jarrett

Travelling in space can play havoc with the human mind. Because of micro-gravity, astronauts frequently experience weird sensory effects, such as the world suddenly appearing upside down. Even their ability to rotate objects in their mind’s eye is sometimes affected. A new open-access study in the journal Microgravity is the first to explore the structural brain changes caused by spaceflight and which may contribute to, or reflect, these and other sensory and cognitive effects.

Vincent Koppelmans and his colleagues, including Jacob Bloomberg at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, compared brain scans taken of 27 astronauts before a space mission with a second scan taken once they were back on earth. The results revealed a mix of shrinkage and enlargement across the brain. There were widespread reductions in grey matter as well as some more localised increases in grey matter in regions that are involved in sensory processing and motor control.

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Feeling authentic in a relationship comes from being able to be your best self, not your actual self

Couple Hero SilhouetteBy Christian Jarrett

Feeling authentic in a relationship – that is, feeling like you are able to be yourself, rather than acting out of character – is healthy, not just for the relationship, but for your wellbeing in general. This makes sense: after all, putting on a fake show can be exhausting. But dig a little deeper and things get more complicated because there are different ways to define who “you” really are.

Is the real you how you actually think and behave, for instance? Or, taking a more dynamic perspective, is it fairer to say that the true you is the person you aspire to be: what psychologists call your “ideal self”?

For a paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Muping Gan and Serena Chen asked members of the public about this and 70 per cent of them thought that the ability to be your actual self was more important for feeling authentic in a relationship than being able to be your ideal self.

But contrary to this folk wisdom, across several studies, the researchers actually found evidence for the opposite – that is, feelings of authenticity in a relationship seem to arise not from being our actual selves in the relationship, but from feeling that we can be our best or ideal self.

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Risk-taking teens’ brains seem to disregard past bad outcomes

Two Male Freerunners Jumping Over a Wall Performing ParkourBy guest blogger Lucy Foulkes

Adolescents take more risks than adults: they are more likely to binge drink, have casual sex, commit crimes and have serious car accidents. In fact, adolescence is a paradox because it is a time of peak physical fitness, but also the time when people are most likely to be injured or killed in an accident. For this reason, it’s critical to understand what drives teenagers to take more risks. To date, many explanations of teenage risk taking have focused on the positive side of these behaviours: the rewarding “kick” that comes from taking a risk that ends well. Some studies have shown that teenagers experience more of this rewarding feeling, and this contributes to the increased risk taking seen at this age.

Fewer studies have considered how teenagers respond when risks turn out badly. This is important because all our previous experiences, both good and bad, affect our subsequent behaviour. If we make a risky decision like gambling money, and it pays off, it’s more likely we’ll decide to gamble again in the near future. Equally, if we take a gamble and it turns out badly, we’ll probably be a bit more reserved next time. But it turns out that some teenagers don’t respond like this: according to a new study in NeuroImage, some of them do not adjust their behavior so readily when things go wrong, and this may be linked to a distinct pattern of activation in their brains.

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Smarter people are happier, says new analysis involving 80,000 participants, but only a bit

albert_einstein_headBy Christian Jarrett

“happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know” Ernest Hemingway

A lot of us would like to be smarter and happier, but does one lead to the other? Folk wisdom suggests not: old sayings tell us that “ignorance is bliss” and that “only a fool can be happy”. What does the psychology literature say? A new meta-analysis in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour has combined the results from dozens of previous studies involving many tens of thousands of participants and, contrary to the received wisdom, it concludes that higher intelligence actually does correlate with greater happiness (or “life satisfaction”) and job satisfaction, but only weakly.

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Circle time rituals help children beat the Marshmallow Test of self control

Group of kids repeat gesture after the teacherBy Christian Jarrett

Sweet, old-fashioned circle time rituals involve young children sitting in a circle with a teacher and copying his or her specific actions as closely as possible. These rituals can seem a bit out of place in today’s culture with its emphasis on the importance of independent thinking, and the ubiquity of interactive educational games employing the latest beeps and whistles of technology. But a new study in Child Development says there is something about the conformity and attention to detail in ritualistic games that makes them a highly effective way to improve children’s executive functioning (their mental nimbleness) and self-control.

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High population density seems to shift us into a future-oriented mindset

613445810_2249c2d193_bBy Christian Jarrett

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.

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