During moderate-intensity exercise, participants exhibited significantly greater attentional bias scores to pleasant compared with unpleasant faces, whereas attentional bias scores to emotional faces did not differ at rest or during high-intensity exercise. In addition, the attentional bias to unpleasant faces was significantly reduced during moderate-intensity exercise compared with that during rest. These results provide behavioral evidence that during exercise at a moderate intensity, there is a shift in attention allocation toward pleasant emotional stimuli and away from unpleasant emotional stimuli.
Participants in a self-compassion condition, compared to a self-esteem control condition and either no intervention or a positive distraction control condition, expressed greater incremental beliefs about a personal weakness (Experiment 1); reported greater motivation to make amends and avoid repeating a recent moral transgression (Experiment 2); spent more time studying for a difficult test following an initial failure (Experiment 3); exhibited a preference for upward social comparison after reflecting on a personal weakness (Experiment 4); and reported greater motivation to change the weakness (Experiment 4). These findings suggest that, somewhat paradoxically, taking an accepting approach to personal failure may make people more motivated to improve themselves.
In this article I will consider how loss of affect in our intellectual lives, through depression for example, can be as debilitating as loss of affect elsewhere in our lives. This will involve showing that there are such things as intellectual emotions, that their role in intellectual activity is not merely as an aid to the intellect, and that loss of affect changes not only one’s motivations, but also one’s overall evaluative take on the world.
This study reviews the synchronous electrophysiological characteristics associated with wake and sleep associated conscious states. Each of these states has associated quantitative changes in background EEG frequencies with each state sharing cognitive and psychophysiological attributes with states with similar electrophysiology (e.g., the beta/gamma EEG frequency is associated with focused and default wake, as well as with focused meditation and the sleep associated state of lucid dreaming, suggesting an electrophysiological and behavioral correlation between these states).
In the present article, I review some of this recent work on the ethnography of empathy. I focus especially on the new issues and questions about empathy that the ethnographic approach raises and the implication of these for the study of empathy more generally.
“Another issue raised by recent research is, if … empathy is essentially altruistic, why do so many people around the world fear its misuse or inaccuracy? From the highlands of Sulawesi, to Yap, to Mexico, to the Arctic and beyond, people seem as concerned with concealing their first-person subjective experience from others as in revealing it. Such findings suggest that empathic processes are always embedded in moral contexts that strongly affect both the likelihood of their display and how they are experienced. They also indicate that we need to know much more about when and why people use complex empathy to harm or exploit rather than to help, the various ways in which people attempt to protect themselves from such harm, and the conditions under which empathy becomes more fallible and prone to error.”
Human cognition is increasingly characterized as an emergent property of interactions among distributed, functionally specialized brain networks. We recently demonstrated that the antagonistic “default” and “dorsal attention” networks—subserving internally and externally directed cognition, respectively—are modulated by a third “frontoparietal control” network that flexibly couples with either network depending on task domain. … These results provide evidence consistent with the idea that the frontoparietal control network plays a pivotal gate-keeping role in goal-directed cognition, mediating the dynamic balance between default and dorsal attention networks.
It is believed that only 10-20% of our genes are active in any cell. For example, the gene for eye color only expresses in the eyes, not the liver, skin or brain. Every cell in the body has the same genetic information; what makes cells, tissues and organs different is that different sets of genes are turned on or expressed. Epigenetics is the study of the ‘marks’ on the genome that determine what genes are expressed. (These marks can be affected by the environment, see the previous post)
Children inherit two copies of a gene, one from each parent. In classic genetics both copies actively shape how the child develops. But an epigenetic form of gene regulation called imprinting, discovered only a few decades ago, can result in the copy of a gene inherited from either the mother or the father being ‘turned off’.
It’s estimated that imprinted genes comprise about 1 percent of the human genome. One gene that has recently been shown to be imprinted, called KCNK9, is predominantly expressed in the cerebellum of the brain and may be involved in bipolar disorder and epilepsy.
Studies of imprinting in the brain of mice by Gregg et. al. have shown that which genes are imprinted can vary both among brain regions and between sexes. So a given gene can be imprinted in the cortex but not in the hypothalamus or vice versa. And a gene inherited from the father can be silenced in male but not female offspring, or vice versa. While analyzing both embryonic and adult mouse brains, they also found that there is a preferential expression of maternal genes in the developing brain and the opposite — a major paternal contribution — in the adult brain of mice. Even though the mechanisms of imprinting might be similar in humans and mice, humans probably have fewer imprinted genes, and the genes that are imprinted in humans differs from the genes that are imprinted in mice.
It was previously thought that we were born with a fixed genetic blueprint and there was nothing we could do to influence that set of plans. Epigenetics tells us a different story. We can, in fact, influence how our genes behave. It’s true the genes we were born with are fixed. But as a waypoint between our genetic information and our environment, there is the epigenome.
The patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material — the epigenome — that sits on top of the genes. It is these epigenetic ‘marks’ that tell our genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. Through epigenetic marks environmental factors like diet, stress, toxic chemichals and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.
In 1986 the Lancet published the first of two groundbreaking papers showing that if a pregnant woman ate poorly, her child would be at significantly higher than average risk for cardiovascular disease as an adult. Research published over the past 10 years or so suggests that traumatic experiences of a pregnant woman can be transmitted to her unborn children by epigenetic mechanisms and alter the stress response in her offspring.
These epigenetic effects can be sex-specific. In Överkalix, an isolated community in Northern Sweden, birth and death records are remarkably detailed. Research here by Lars Olov Bygren has shown that famine at critical times in people’s lives could affect the life expectancy of those peoples’ grandchildren. But paternal grandfather’s food supply was only linked to the mortality of grandsons, while paternal grandmother’s food supply was only associated with the granddaughters’ mortality.
For thousands of years, human beings have looked down on their emotions. This bias against feeling has led people to assume that reason is always best. But what if this is all backwards? What if our emotions know more than we know? What if our feelings are smarter than us?
While there is an extensive literature on the potential wisdom of human emotion, it’s only in the last few years that researchers have demonstrated that the emotional system might excel at complex decisions, or those involving lots of variables. This is largely because the unconscious is able to handle a surfeit of information, digesting the facts without getting overwhelmed. (Human reason, in contrast, has a very strict bottleneck and can only process about four bits of data at any given moment.)
But this raises the obvious question: how do we gain access to all this analysis, which by definition is taking place outside of conscious awareness? Here’s where emotions come in handy. Every feeling is like a summary of data, a quick encapsulation of all the information processing that we don’t have conscious access to.
In a new paper, published in Emotion by scientists then at Cornell University, provided a test of the possible advantages of using our emotions to make complex decisions. While consciously focusing on feelings versus details, participants made choices that varied in complexity. The detail-focused group excelled at making simple decisions. Thinking in a rational manner made them nearly 20 percent more effective at identifying the best car alternative when there were only sixteen total pieces of information. However, those focused on feelings proved far better at finding the best car in a more complex condition. While deliberate thinkers barely beat random chance, those listening to their feelings identified the ideal option nearly 70 percent of the time.
The body evolved under conditions of frequent movement. Therefore it’s not surprising that exercise is necessary for maintaining health. Even so, the effects of exercise on the brain and mental functioning are still somewhat unknown. New research shows that exercise targets many aspects of brain function and has broad effects on overall brain health.
Studies have shown that exercise has antidepressant properties and that exercise can improve the brain functioning of the elderly and may even protect against dementia. Some studies have found that exercise boosts activity in the brain’s frontal lobes — associated with reasoning, planning, emotions, and problem solving — and the hippocampus — associated with learning, memory and emotional regulation. We don’t really know how or why this occurs. Animal studies have also found that exercise increases levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine (many antidepressant drugs, including Prozac, are designed to raise the concentration of those molecules in the brain).
Exercise has also been found to increase levels of “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF), a growth factor associated with learning and memory. BDNF’s primary role seems to be to help brain cells survive longer, so this may explain some of the beneficial effects of exercise on dementia. Overall, BDNF improves the function of neurons, encourages their growth, and strengthens and protects them against the natural process of cell death.
And here some of the more well-known beneficial effects of exercise on the body:
Subjects in this study practiced mindfulness meditation training for 8 weeks, about 30 minutes a day, with a meditation technique that focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations and feelings. Brain images were taken of each subject before and after the training. Increases in gray-matter density were found in the hippocampus —an area responsible for learning, memory and emotional regulation. Several conditions such as major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are associated with decreased density or volume of the hippocampus. Changes were also seen in other structures, associated with the conscious experience of the self, social cognition and regulation of emotion and cognition.
Although no change was seen in a self-awareness-associated structure called the insula, which had been identified in earlier studies of experienced meditators, the authors suggest that longer-term meditation practice might be needed to produce changes in that area.
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.” says Britta Hölzel, one of the authors of the paper.
The bowels of every baby are filled with trillions of bacteria that outnumber the cells of our own body by ten to one. This “microbiome” acts like one of our own organs, harvesting energy from our food and blocking the growth of harmful bacteria. It’s also a gift from our mothers. In the womb, we’re largely sterile. It’s only when we pass through the vagina that we’re seeded with our first set of bacteria.
By studying mice, Rochellys Diaz Heijtz from the Karolinska Institute has found that a mammal’s gut bacteria can affect the way its brain develops as it grows up. They could even influence how it behaves as an adult. Heijtz worked with two strains of mice – one that was completely free of germs, and another that had an intact microbiome but no disease-causing bacteria. The two strains behaved differently. The germ-free mice were more active, and spent more time scurrying around their enclosures. They were also less anxious and more likely to take risks, such as spending long periods of time in bright light or open spaces.
The absence of the gut bacteria also triggered a slew of changes in the rodents’ brains. Heijtz compared her germ-free and disease-free mice and found that over a hundred genes were twice as active in the brains of one strain compared to the other.
A Japanese team has found that gut bacteria can change levels of stress hormones in the body. And an American group has found that germ-free mice have almost three times more serotonin in their blood than normal ones. Heijtz herself found that chemicals like noradernaline and dopamine came and went at a faster pace in the germ-free mice. All of these chemicals could affect the way the young brain develops.
“We know that animals in ‘germ-free’ conditions can reproduce, they have a longer lifespan, and they seem to live perfectly OK, provided you don’t expose them to stress or damage,” said Sven Pettersson, the Karolinska Institute microbiologist who, along with Diaz, led the research. “The moment you do that they’re much more fragile.”
TEDTalks : Brene Brown: The power of vulnerability - Brene Brown
Brene Brown studies human connection — our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk at TEDxHouston, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity. A talk to share.