Thursday, December 31, 2015

Negative evaluation of counterstereotypical people by conservatives maintains their sense of certainty

Yet another study on differences in the psychology of conservative and liberal individuals:
People frequently use physical appearance stereotypes to categorize individuals when their group membership is not directly observable. Recent research indicates that political conservatives tend to use such stereotypes more than liberals do because they express a greater desire for certainty and order. In the present research, we found that conservatives were also more likely to negatively evaluate and distribute fewer economic resources to people who deviate from the stereotypes of their group. This occurred for people belonging to both preexisting and novel groups, regardless of whether the stereotypes were real or experimentally fabricated. Critically, conservatives only negatively evaluated counterstereotypical people when the stereotypes were functional—that is, when they expected that they would need to use the stereotypes at a later point to categorize individuals into groups. Moreover, increasing liberals’ desire for certainty led them to negatively evaluate counterstereotypical people just like conservatives did. Thus, conservatives are not only more likely to use stereotypes than are liberals, but are especially likely to negatively evaluate counterstereotypical people to organize the social world with greater certainty.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Dorsal and Ventral Right Brain Pathways for Prosody

Sammler et al. show that analysis of the emotional content, or vocal tone, of our speech is processed in dorsal and ventral streams of the right hemisphere much as phonology, syntax, and semantics are processed by dorsal and ventral streams of the left hemisphere:
Our vocal tone—the prosody—contributes a lot to the meaning of speech beyond the actual words. Indeed, the hesitant tone of a “yes” may be more telling than its affirmative lexical meaning. The human brain contains dorsal and ventral processing streams in the left hemisphere that underlie core linguistic abilities such as phonology, syntax, and semantics. Whether or not prosody — a reportedly right-hemispheric faculty — involves analogous processing streams is a matter of debate. Functional connectivity studies on prosody leave no doubt about the existence of such streams, but opinions diverge on whether information travels along dorsal or ventral pathways. Here we show, with a novel paradigm using audio morphing combined with multimodal neuroimaging and brain stimulation, that prosody perception takes dual routes along dorsal and ventral pathways in the right hemisphere. In experiment 1, categorization of speech stimuli that gradually varied in their prosodic pitch contour (between statement and question) involved (1) an auditory ventral pathway along the superior temporal lobe and (2) auditory-motor dorsal pathways connecting posterior temporal and inferior frontal/premotor areas. In experiment 2, inhibitory stimulation of right premotor cortex as a key node of the dorsal stream decreased participants’ performance in prosody categorization, arguing for a motor involvement in prosody perception. These data draw a dual-stream picture of prosodic processing that parallels the established left-hemispheric multi-stream architecture of language, but with relative rightward asymmetry.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Brain mitochondria function links anxiety with social subordination.

Hollis et al. make the fascinating observation that position in the social hierarchy of rats (dominant versus submissive) can be enhanced or diminished by stimulating or inhibiting energy metabolism of mitochondria in the nucleus accumbens, a brain region that regulates motivation and depression. It is interesting that several of the human dietary supplements that can be purchased from websites promoting brain rejuvenation contain stimulators of mitochondrial function. (I have noted one of these in a previous post.)
Dominance hierarchies are integral aspects of social groups, yet whether personality traits may predispose individuals to a particular rank remains unclear. Here we show that trait anxiety directly influences social dominance in male outbred rats and identify an important mediating role for mitochondrial function in the nucleus accumbens. High-anxious animals that are prone to become subordinate during a social encounter with a low-anxious rat exhibit reduced mitochondrial complex I and II proteins and respiratory capacity as well as decreased ATP and increased ROS production in the nucleus accumbens. A causal link for these findings is indicated by pharmacological approaches. In a dyadic contest between anxiety-matched animals, microinfusion of specific mitochondrial complex I or II inhibitors into the nucleus accumbens reduced social rank, mimicking the low probability to become dominant observed in high-anxious animals. Conversely, intraaccumbal infusion of nicotinamide, an amide form of vitamin B3 known to enhance brain energy metabolism, prevented the development of a subordinate status in high-anxious individuals. We conclude that mitochondrial function in the nucleus accumbens is crucial for social hierarchy establishment and is critically involved in the low social competitiveness associated with high anxiety. Our findings highlight a key role for brain energy metabolism in social behavior and point to mitochondrial function in the nucleus accumbens as a potential marker and avenue of treatment for anxiety-related social disorders.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Socioeconomic status, inflammatory reactivity, and social support.

Interesting work from John-Henderson et al., who suggest that social support is more effective in damping stress responses in people having childhoods with low socioeconomic status than in people with high childhood socioeconomic status.:
Low socioeconomic status (SES) during childhood confers risk for adverse health in adulthood. Accumulating evidence suggests that this may be due, in part, to the association between lower childhood SES and higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Drawing from literature showing that low childhood SES predicts exaggerated physiological reactivity to stressors and that lower SES is associated with a more communal, socially attuned orientation, we hypothesized that inflammatory reactivity would be more greatly affected by cues of social support among individuals whose childhood SES was low than among those whose childhood SES was high. In two studies, we found that individuals with lower subjective childhood SES exhibited greater reductions in pro-inflammatory cytokine reactivity to a stressor in the presence of a supportive figure (relative to conditions with an unsupportive or neutral figure). These effects were independent of current SES. This work helps illuminate SES-based differences in inflammatory reactivity to stressors, particularly among individuals whose childhood SES was low.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The need for affiliation - communities of kindness

I belong to the Gay Men's Chorus of South Florida, which completed a series of five Christmas season concerts over the past two weeks. Singing in these performances, and doing a piano duet accompaniment for one of the pieces, I was exhausted for several days. Being in the chorus reminds me of church and boy scout groups of my youth. It is a communal setting where there is a sense of family, laughter, love and community. I am struck by parallels with Mark Oppenheimer's description of another secular equivalent to church communities, the CrossFit gym movement.
A for-profit gym franchise founded in 2000 that now has 13,000 licensed operators serving at least two million exercisers, CrossFit — like television, sports fandom and health fads — has become the focus of study by researchers trying to pinpoint what constitutes religiosity in America.
Members speak about their "box," or gym.. others might speak about a church or synagogue community. The same is true of some 12-step program members, and devoted college-football fans. In an increasingly secular America, all sorts of activities and subcultures provide the meaning that in the past, at least as we imagine it, religious communities did.
The article outlines several parallels between CrossFit and religious communities. From one member:
What really struck us was the way in which people were bringing their kids to their box...or the way different workouts of the day were named after soldiers who had died in battle. So there’s all of these things you would expect to see in a church — remembering the dead through some sort of ritual, and intergenerational community.
In a similar vein, David Brooks writes about educational communities of character. He cites a number of examples of secondary school settings that emphasize kindness, respect, and responsibility in binding together a learning community.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Empathy is a choice, and can be trained.

I want to pass on some clips from a review by Cameron et al. that summarizes, and has links to, a number of studies that deal our ability to share the experiences of others.
While a single crying child or injured puppy tugs at our heartstrings, large numbers of suffering people, as in epidemics, earthquakes and genocides, do not inspire a comparable reaction...Not only does empathy seem to fail when it is needed most, but it also appears to play favorites. Recent studies have shown that our empathy is dampened or constrained when it comes to people of different races, nationalities or creeds. These results suggest that empathy is a limited resource, like a fossil fuel, which we cannot extend indefinitely or to everyone.
While we concede that the exercise of empathy is, in practice, often far too limited in scope, we dispute the idea that this shortcoming is inherent, a permanent flaw in the emotion itself. Inspired by a competing body of recent research, we believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to of us, Daryl Cameron, along with the psychologist Keith Payne, conducted an experiment to see if ...motivational factors could explain why we seem more empathetic to single victims than to large numbers of them.
Participants in this study read about either one or eight child refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan. Half of the participants were led to expect that they would be asked to make a donation to the refugee or refugees, whereas the other half were not. When there was no financial cost involved in feeling empathy, people felt more empathy for the eight children than for the one child, reversing the usual bias. If insensitivity to mass suffering stemmed from an intrinsic limit to empathy, such financial factors shouldn’t have made a difference.
Likewise, in another recent study, the psychologists Karina Schumann, Jamil Zaki and Carol S. Dweck found that when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — they engaged in more effort to experience empathy for racial groups other than their own. Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded, it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Male and female brains do not constitute two distinct categories.

From Zoel et al.: Significance
Sex/gender differences in the brain are of high social interest because their presence is typically assumed to prove that humans belong to two distinct categories not only in terms of their genitalia, and thus justify differential treatment of males and females. Here we show that, although there are sex/gender differences in brain and behavior, humans and human brains are comprised of unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males. Our results demonstrate that regardless of the cause of observed sex/gender differences in brain and behavior (nature or nurture), human brains cannot be categorized into two distinct classes: male brain/female brain.
Whereas a categorical difference in the genitals has always been acknowledged, the question of how far these categories extend into human biology is still not resolved. Documented sex/gender differences in the brain are often taken as support of a sexually dimorphic view of human brains (“female brain” or “male brain”). However, such a distinction would be possible only if sex/gender differences in brain features were highly dimorphic (i.e., little overlap between the forms of these features in males and females) and internally consistent (i.e., a brain has only “male” or only “female” features). Here, analysis of MRIs of more than 1,400 human brains from four datasets reveals extensive overlap between the distributions of females and males for all gray matter, white matter, and connections assessed. Moreover, analyses of internal consistency reveal that brains with features that are consistently at one end of the “maleness-femaleness” continuum are rare. Rather, most brains are comprised of unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males. Our findings are robust across sample, age, type of MRI, and method of analysis. These findings are corroborated by a similar analysis of personality traits, attitudes, interests, and behaviors of more than 5,500 individuals, which reveals that internal consistency is extremely rare. Our study demonstrates that, although there are sex/gender differences in the brain, human brains do not belong to one of two distinct categories: male brain/female brain.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Good news for the grumpy.

A dogma of the self-help and happiness industries is that unhappiness decreases health and longevity. Happy people are supposed to live longer. Not so, it turns out, according to a British study published in The Lancet that followed one million middle-aged women in Britan for 10 years. Previous work may have confused cause and effect, suggesting that unhappiness made people ill, when it was actually the other way around. Bottom line from the article:
In middle-aged women, poor health can cause unhappiness. After allowing for this association and adjusting for potential confounders, happiness and related measures of wellbeing do not appear to have any direct effect on mortality.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Loneliness hurts.

Reynolds points to an article by Cacioppo et. al., who contribute to a special issue of Cortex magazine on Neuro-cognitive mechanisms of social interactions. From her review:
For early humans, being alone was no way to live. Those on the tribe’s periphery faced increased risks of starvation, predation and early death. And so humans (like other communal creatures) evolved what seem to be specific biological reactions to social threats. A social animal that feels itself to be isolated from its kind begins to behave nervously and experiences unhealthy physiological responses. The body produces more stress-­related biochemicals, leading to inflammation and a reduced ability to fight viral infections. These adaptations might help explain why many chronically lonely people have an overabundance of stress-­related cells and weakened immune systems. But how they see the world — how loneliness affects their thinking — may be just as consequential to their health.
The abstract of the Cacioppo et. al. article, which finds that lonely people become inadvertently hypervigilant to social threats, which makes the loneliness worse:
Being on the social perimeter is not only sad, it is dangerous. Our evolutionary model of the effects of perceived social isolation (loneliness) on the brain as well as a growing body of behavioral research suggests that loneliness promotes short-term self-preservation, including an increased implicit vigilance for social, in contrast to nonsocial, threats. However, this hypothesis has not been tested previously in a neuroimaging study. We therefore used high density EEG and a social Stroop interference task to test the hypothesis that implicit attention to negative social, in contrast to nonsocial, Words in the Stroop task differs between individuals high versus low in loneliness and to investigate the brain dynamics of implicit processing for negative social (vs nonsocial) stimuli in lonely individuals, compared to nonlonely individuals (N = 70). The present study provides the first evidence that negative social stimuli are differentiated from negative nonsocial stimuli more quickly in the lonely than nonlonely brains. Given the timing of this differentiation in the brain and the fact that participants were performing a Stroop task, these results also suggest that these differences reflect implicit rather than explicit attentional differences between lonely and nonlonely individuals. Source estimates were performed for purposes of hypothesis generation regarding underlying neural mechanisms, and the results implicated the neural circuits reminiscent of orienting and executive control aspects of attention as contributing to these differences. Together, the results are in accord with the evolutionary model of loneliness.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A special issue of Science Magazine on aging.

You can see titles and abstracts of articles here. And, I want to pass on a section of one of the articles, “Healthy aging: The ultimate preventative medicine,” that lists interventions to delay aging that seem promising.

Abstract: Age is the greatest risk factor for nearly every major cause of mortality in developed nations. Despite this, most biomedical research focuses on individual disease processes without much consideration for the relationships between aging and disease. Recent discoveries in the field of geroscience, which aims to explain biological mechanisms of aging, have provided insights into molecular processes that underlie biological aging and, perhaps more importantly, potential interventions to delay aging and promote healthy longevity. Here we describe some of these advances, along with efforts to move geroscience from the bench to the clinic. We also propose that greater emphasis should be placed on research into basic aging processes, because interventions that slow aging will have a greater effect on quality of life compared with disease-specific approaches.  

Geroscience interventions with translational potential.

Dietary restriction: Dietary restriction (DR) is the most studied intervention for delaying aging. Although not universally effective, a majority of studies have documented significant increases in both life span and health span when DR is applied in laboratory models, including nonhuman primates. Limited studies also indicate important health benefits, including reversal of disease risk factors, in people who practice DR. Although DR is not a viable translational approach at the population level, research in this area has incited the search for alternative dietary modifications (e.g., low-protein diets) or small-molecule DR mimetics (e.g., mTOR inhibitors, see below) that can provide the health benefits of DR without requiring reduced food consumption.

Exercise: A large body of literature provides evidence that the health benefits of exercise are consistent with the enhancement of health span. However, poor compliance, especially in the elderly population, makes this intervention challenging to apply. Thus, there is high interest in developing pharmacologic interventions that would synergize with lower levels of exercise.

mTOR inhibitors: Rapamycin extends life span and promotes health span in mice, as well as in simpler organisms. Treatment beginning late in life is sufficient to extend life span, reverse cardiac decline, and improve immune function in mice. A recent study also reported that a rapamycin derivative significantly boosts immune function in elderly people .

Metformin and acarbose: Metformin and acarbose are widely used antidiabetes drugs. Metformin improves health span in mice and may slightly extend life span, whereas acarbose markedly extends life span in male mice and modestly extends life span in female mice. In a nonrandomized retrospective analysis, diabetic patients taking metformin have reduced mortality compared with diabetic patients not receiving metformin, and they may live longer than nondiabetics not receiving metformin.

NAD precursors and sirtuin activators: Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) precursors such as nicotinamide riboside and nicotinamide mononucleotide have been reported to improve health span in mouse models of muscle aging and cognitive decline. The mechanism of action is not clear, but it may involve activation of sirtuin NAD-dependent protein deacetylases, along with enhanced mitochondrial function. Other, possibly more specific, sirtuin activators also improve health span and slightly extend life span in mice.

Modifiers of senescence and telomere dysfunction:Senescent cells accumulate during aging and secrete factors that promote inflammation and cancer. Telomere dysfunction is a major cause of cell senescence, and strategies to enhance telomerase function offer promise for improving health span, although the possibility of increased cancer risk must be addressed. Likewise, genetic and pharmacological strategies to target and kill senescent cells enhance both life span and markers of health in short-lived mice with high levels of senescent cells.

Hormonal and circulating factors: Age-related changes in important hormones (including sex-steroids, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor 1) are well documented; however, the risks and benefits of hormone supplementation in aging remain largely controversial.  Heterochronic parabiosis experiments in which the circulatory system of an aged mouse is shared with that of a young mouse suggest that additional, more subtle humoral factors affect age-associated declines in several tissues, including the brain, muscle, liver, and heart. Some progress has been made toward defining these factors, and an effort is under way to determine whether transfusion of young plasma can delay Alzheimer’s disease.

Mitochondrial-targeted therapeutics: Mitochondrial dysfunction is a major contributor to aging and age-related diseases, although the mechanisms are more complex than initially suggested by the Harman’s free radical theory of aging. Attention is now being directed to interventions that augment mitochondrial function, energetics, and biogenesis, including mitochondrial-targeted antioxidants and NAD precursors.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Exercise helps your brain rewire.

Our brains are most capable of changing in response to experience when we are young, then this ability abruptly declines into adulthood. Lunghi and Sale do an interesting experiment showing how the plasticity that does remain can be enhanced by exercise. Covering one eye and watching a movie while relaxing in a chair boosts brain responses to the deprived eye. If study participants instead watched the movie while alternating 10 min. intervals of rest and cycling on a stationary bike, this enhancement of the deprived eye became much larger. A figure, followed by their abstract:

Brain plasticity, defined as the capability of cerebral neurons to change in response to experience, is fundamental for behavioral adaptability, learning, memory, functional development, and neural repair. The visual cortex is a widely used model for studying neuroplasticity and the underlying mechanisms. Plasticity is maximal in early development, within the so-called critical period, while its levels abruptly decline in adulthood. Recent studies, however, have revealed a significant residual plastic potential of the adult visual cortex by showing that, in adult humans, short-term monocular deprivation alters ocular dominance by homeostatically boosting responses to the deprived eye. In animal models, a reopening of critical period plasticity in the adult primary visual cortex has been obtained by a variety of environmental manipulations, such as dark exposure, or environmental enrichment, together with its critical component of enhanced physical exercise. Among these non-invasive procedures, physical exercise emerges as particularly interesting for its potential of application to clinics, though there has been a lack of experimental evidence available that physical exercise actually promotes visual plasticity in humans. Here we report that short-term homeostatic plasticity of the adult human visual cortex induced by transient monocular deprivation is potently boosted by moderate levels of voluntary physical activity. These findings could have a bearing in orienting future research in the field of physical activity application to clinical research.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Why doesn't economic growth lead to more happiness?

This is the Easterlin paradox, which I have mentioned in a previous post. Oishi and Kesebir now do an interesting analysis showing that economic growth is not associated with increases in happiness when it is accompanied by growing income inequality.:
One of the most puzzling social science findings in the past half century is the Easterlin paradox: Economic growth within a country does not always translate into an increase in happiness. We provide evidence that this paradox can be partly explained by income inequality. In two different data sets covering 34 countries, economic growth was not associated with increases in happiness when it was accompanied by growing income inequality. Earlier instances of the Easterlin paradox (i.e., economic growth not being associated with increasing happiness) can thus be explained by the frequent concurrence of economic growth and growing income inequality. These findings suggest that a more even distribution of growth in national wealth may be a precondition for raising nationwide happiness.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Modest exercise gives maximum health benefits.

Gretchen Reynolds points to a study in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings that reviews studies published in PubMed since 2000 that included at least 500 runners and 5-year follow-up to analyze the relationship between running, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality. The optimal dose of running required for protection is surprisingly small. Running for 20-30 minutes twice per week appears to give maximum benefits. Three to four times the duration of walking is needed to achieve the same benefits.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Coffee consumption correlates with lower risk of dying.

From Nicholas Bakalar, who notes a study showing that people who drink more coffee have a reduced risk of death - a correlation (not necessarily a cause): 
Researchers followed more than 200,000 doctors and nurses for up to 30 years. The participants had periodic physical examinations and completed questionnaires on diet and behavior, including their coffee habits. The study is in Circulation.  
Compared with abstainers, nonsmokers who drank a cup of coffee a day had a 6 percent reduced risk of death, one to three cups an 8 percent reduced risk, three to five cups a 15 percent reduced risk, and more than five cups a 12 percent reduced risk. There was little difference whether they drank caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee. The association persisted after controlling for age, alcohol consumption, B.M.I. and other health and diet factors.  
Coffee drinking was linked to a reduced risk of death from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, neurological diseases and suicide, although not from cancer.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Exercise enhances frontal brain lateralization characteristic of younger brains.

As we age beyond 40 years or so, mental tasks that require attention, problem solving, decision-making and other types of high-level thinking become less localized to one of our frontal lobes and expand to engage both hemispheres of our prefrontal cortex. This represents a general reorganization and weakening of our brains' function with age. Hyodo et. al. show in a group of Japanese men with no signs of dementia, between between 64 and 75 years old, that increased aerobic fitness correlates with the increased lateralization during task performance characteristic of younger brains. Here are their summaries:

• Association among fitness, brain activation, and cognitive function was examined. 
• Frontal laterality during Stroop task in older men was assessed by fNIRS. 
• We found the association between ventilatory threshold and Stroop performance. 
• The association was mediated by the lateralized prefrontal activation.
Previous studies have shown that higher aerobic fitness is related to higher cognitive function and higher task-related prefrontal activation in older adults. However, a holistic picture of these factors has yet to be presented. As a typical age-related change of brain activation, less lateralized activity in the prefrontal cortex during cognitive tasks has been observed in various neuroimaging studies. Thus, this study aimed to reveal the relationship between aerobic fitness, cognitive function, and frontal lateralization. Sixty male older adults each performed a submaximal incremental exercise test to determine their oxygen intake at ventilatory threshold (VT) in order to index their aerobic fitness. They performed a color–word Stroop task while prefrontal activation was monitored using functional near infrared spectroscopy. As an index of cognitive function, Stroop interference time was analyzed. Partial correlation analyses revealed significant correlations among higher VT, shorter Stroop interference time and greater left-lateralized dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) activation when adjusting for education. Moreover, mediation analyses showed that left-lateralized DLPFC activation significantly mediated the association between VT and Stroop interference time. These results suggest that higher aerobic fitness is associated with cognitive function via lateralized frontal activation in older adults.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Mindfulness meditation and pain reduction.

An interesting analysis from Zeidan et al.:

Recent findings have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation significantly reduces pain. Given that the “gold standard” for evaluating the efficacy of behavioral interventions is based on appropriate placebo comparisons, it is imperative that we establish whether there is an effect supporting meditation-related pain relief above and beyond the effects of placebo. Here, we provide novel evidence demonstrating that mindfulness meditation produces greater pain relief and employs distinct neural mechanisms than placebo cream and sham mindfulness meditation. Specifically, mindfulness meditation-induced pain relief activated higher-order brain regions, including the orbitofrontal and cingulate cortices. In contrast, placebo analgesia was associated with decreased pain-related brain activation. These findings demonstrate that mindfulness meditation reduces pain through unique mechanisms and may foster greater acceptance of meditation as an adjunct pain therapy.
Mindfulness meditation reduces pain in experimental and clinical settings. However, it remains unknown whether mindfulness meditation engages pain-relieving mechanisms other than those associated with the placebo effect (e.g., conditioning, psychosocial context, beliefs). To determine whether the analgesic mechanisms of mindfulness meditation are different from placebo, we randomly assigned 75 healthy, human volunteers to 4 d of the following: (1) mindfulness meditation, (2) placebo conditioning, (3) sham mindfulness meditation, or (4) book-listening control intervention. We assessed intervention efficacy using psychophysical evaluation of experimental pain and functional neuroimaging. Importantly, all cognitive manipulations (i.e., mindfulness meditation, placebo conditioning, sham mindfulness meditation) significantly attenuated pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings when compared to rest and the control condition (p less than 0.05). Mindfulness meditation reduced pain intensity (p = 0.032) and pain unpleasantness (p less than 0.001) ratings more than placebo analgesia. Mindfulness meditation also reduced pain intensity (p = 0.030) and pain unpleasantness (p = 0.043) ratings more than sham mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness-meditation-related pain relief was associated with greater activation in brain regions associated with the cognitive modulation of pain, including the orbitofrontal, subgenual anterior cingulate, and anterior insular cortex. In contrast, placebo analgesia was associated with activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and deactivation of sensory processing regions (secondary somatosensory cortex). Sham mindfulness meditation-induced analgesia was not correlated with significant neural activity, but rather by greater reductions in respiration rate. This study is the first to demonstrate that mindfulness-related pain relief is mechanistically distinct from placebo analgesia. The elucidation of this distinction confirms the existence of multiple, cognitively driven, supraspinal mechanisms for pain modulation.
Note: In the sham mindfulness training, conditions were identical to mindfulness training session, but subjects were told just to close their eyes and take a deep breath 'as we sit here in meditation' every 2-3 min. They were not given the specific mindfulness-based instructions to pay attention to the breath, acknowledge arising thoughts, feelings, and/or emotion without judgment or emotional reaction, and simply return attention back to the breath. In the placebo training/conditioning sessions, participants were told they were participating in the trial of a new topical local anesthetic (actually petrolatum jelly) being tested for reducing pain after multiple applications. In all of the conditions, pain was induced by local heating of the skin.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Gender bias in the attribution of creativity

Slightly edited abstract from Proudfoot et al., who provide further examples of gender discrimination:
We propose that the propensity to think creatively tends to be associated with independence and self-direction—qualities generally ascribed to men—so that men are often perceived to be more creative than women. In a first study, we found that “outside the box” creativity is more strongly associated with stereotypically masculine characteristics (e.g., daring and self-reliance) than with stereotypically feminine characteristics (e.g., cooperativeness and supportiveness.) A second study found that a man is ascribed more creativity than a woman when they produce identical output. A third study analyzed archival data, and found that men’s ideas are evaluated as more ingenious than women’s ideas. Study four found that female executives are stereotyped as less innovative than their male counterparts when evaluated by their supervisors. Finally, we observed that stereotypically masculine behavior enhances a man’s perceived creativity, whereas identical behavior does not enhance a woman’s perceived creativity. This boost in men’s perceived creativity is mediated by attributions of agency, not competence, and predicts perceptions of reward deservingness.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Lower leg power predicts cognitive aging.

Gretchen Reynolds points to a study of 162 healthy female twin pairs, some identical, and some not, who 10 years previously had completed extensive examinations of their thinking and memory abilities, as well as measurements of their leg-muscle power.
...those who had had the sturdiest legs a decade ago showed the least fall-off in thinking skills, even when the scientists controlled for such factors as fatty diets, high blood pressure and shaky blood-sugar control...a muscularly powerful twin now performed about 18 percent better on memory and other cognitive tests than her weaker the brain imaging of the identical twins, if one genetically identical twin had had sturdier legs than the other at the start of the study, she now displayed significantly more brain volume and fewer “empty spaces in the brain” than her weaker sister.
Keep in mind the 'this is only one study' caution. It involved only a single analysis of the brain health of middle-aged female twins. However, it is a plausible result, because it is known that exercise causes muscles to release brain growth factors, and sturdier muscles might be expected to release more.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Racial bias and time perception.

From Moskowitz et al.:
Arousal is known to shape time perception, and heightened arousal causes one to perceive that time has slowed (i.e., a given length of time feels longer than it actually is). The current experiments illustrate that among White people who experience arousal when contemplating race (specifically those for whom appearing biased is an ongoing concern), time perception slows when they observe faces of Black men. We asked participants to judge the duration of presentation for faces of White and Black men (shown for periods ranging from 300 to 1,200 ms) relative to a standard duration of 600 ms. Evidence of bias emerged when White participants concerned with bias saw faces of Black men (e.g., durations of less than 600 ms were perceived as being greater than 600 ms). The current findings have implications for intergroup interactions in which timing is essential—for example, length of job interviews, police officers’ perception of the length of an encounter and when force should be initiated, and doctors’ perception of the length of medical encounters. Racially biased time perception is a new form of implicit bias, one exerted at the perceptual level.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Cultural specificity of human fairness.

Blake et al. do an interesting experiment on how sensitive children are to inequality. They asked one child in a pair or to accept or reject an offer of Skittles on behalf of both of them. Between ages 4 and 15 offers that were equal for both children were accepted, but older children often refected offers that would provide more Skittles to their partner. The age at which children started rejecting such offers varied across the seven countries studied (Canada, India, Mexico, Peru, Senegal, Uganda, USA) suggesting different times for development of a sense of fairness. In three countries—the United States, Canada, and Uganda—some older children also rejected offers that were unfair to their partner.
A sense of fairness plays a critical role in supporting human cooperation. Adult norms of fair resource sharing vary widely across societies, suggesting that culture shapes the acquisition of fairness behaviour during childhood. Here we examine how fairness behaviour develops in children from seven diverse societies, testing children from 4 to 15 years of age (n = 866 pairs) in a standardized resource decision task. We measured two key aspects of fairness decisions: disadvantageous inequity aversion (peer receives more than self) and advantageous inequity aversion (self receives more than a peer). We show that disadvantageous inequity aversion emerged across all populations by middle childhood. By contrast, advantageous inequity aversion was more variable, emerging in three populations and only later in development. We discuss these findings in relation to questions about the universality and cultural specificity of human fairness.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

The evolution of music from emotional signals

I want to pass on the slightly edited abstract of a recent article on the evolutionary origins of music, "Music evolution and neuroscience," in Progress in Brain Research, written by my Univ. of Wisconsin colleague Charles Snowdon.
There have been many attempts to discuss the evolutionary origins of music. We review theories of music origins and take the perspective that music is originally derived from emotional signals in both humans and animals. An evolutionary approach has two components: First, is music adaptive? How does it improve reproductive success? Second, what, if any, are the phylogenetic origins of music? Can we find evidence of music in other species? We show that music has adaptive value through emotional contagion, social cohesion, and improved well-being. We trace the roots of music through the emotional signals of other species suggesting that the emotional aspects of music have a long evolutionary history. We show how music and speech are closely interlinked with the musical aspects of speech conveying emotional information. We describe acoustic structures that communicate emotion in music and present evidence that these emotional features are widespread among humans and also function to induce emotions in animals. Similar acoustic structures are present in the emotional signals of nonhuman animals. We conclude with a discussion of music designed specifically to induce emotional states in animals, both cotton top tamarin monkeys and domestic cats.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Increased false-memory susceptibility after mindfulness meditation

From Wilson et al.:
The effect of mindfulness meditation on false-memory susceptibility was examined in three experiments. Because mindfulness meditation encourages judgment-free thoughts and feelings, we predicted that participants in the mindfulness condition would be especially likely to form false memories. In two experiments, participants were randomly assigned to either a mindfulness induction, in which they were instructed to focus attention on their breathing, or a mind-wandering induction, in which they were instructed to think about whatever came to mind. The overall number of words from the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm that were correctly recalled did not differ between conditions. However, participants in the mindfulness condition were significantly more likely to report critical nonstudied items than participants in the control condition. In a third experiment, which tested recognition and used a reality-monitoring paradigm, participants had reduced reality-monitoring accuracy after completing the mindfulness induction. These results demonstrate a potential unintended consequence of mindfulness meditation in which memories become less reliable.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Religiousness decreases children’s altruistic behaviors.

Decety et al. challenge the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior.:

•Family religious identification decreases children’s altruistic behaviors
•Religiousness predicts parent-reported child sensitivity to injustices and empathy
•Children from religious households are harsher in their punitive tendencies 
Prosocial behaviors are ubiquitous across societies. They emerge early in ontogeny and are shaped by interactions between genes and culture. Over the course of middle childhood, sharing approaches equality in distribution. Since 5.8 billion humans, representing 84% of the worldwide population, identify as religious, religion is arguably one prevalent facet of culture that influences the development and expression of prosociality. While it is generally accepted that religion contours people’s moral judgments and prosocial behavior, the relation between religiosity and morality is a contentious one. Here, we assessed altruism and third-party evaluation of scenarios depicting interpersonal harm in 1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa), the religiousness of their household, and parent-reported child empathy and sensitivity to justice. Across all countries, parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents. However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies. Together these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism, challenging the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior.