Category Psychology

Study Finds We Choose Money Over Happiness

From MedicalXpress, by George Lowery

Given the choice, would you take a good-paying job with reasonable demands on your time or a high-paying job with longer work hours, permitting only six hours of sleep? Many people opt for the cash, even when they know their decision will compromise their happiness, according to a new Cornell study.

“You might think of happiness as the ultimate goal that people pursue, but actually, people think of goals like health, family happiness, social status and sense of purpose as sometimes competing with happiness,” said Alex Rees-Jones, a Cornell doctoral student in the field of economics and co-author of a paper to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal American Economic Review. His co-authors include Cornell assistant professors of economics Dan Benjamin and Ori Heffetz, as well as University of Michigan professor Miles Kimball.

“We found that people make trade-offs between happiness and other things,” Rees-Jones said. “For example, they explicitly told us in the free response sections that they would be happier one way, but their family would be happier if they took higher-paying options.” They also said they were sometimes willing to choose a job that they thought would bring less happiness for themselves if they thought it would generate a greater sense of purpose, higher social status, a greater sense of control or a higher level of their family’s happiness, Rees-Jones said.

The study asked more than 2,600 survey participants (including 633 Cornell students) to consider a variety of scenarios, including the choice between an $80,000 job with reasonable work hours and seven and a half hours of sleep each night, or a $140,000 job with long work hours and time for only six hours of sleep.

Subjects were then asked which option would make them happier.

“On average, there are systematic differences between what people choose and what people think would make them happier,” Rees-Jones said. “For example, people are more likely to choose the higher-income/lower-sleep job even when they don’t think it will make them happier.”

The authors “wanted to see if people were trying to be as happy as possible,” Rees-Jones said.

After the survey, subjects were asked if they thought their responses were in error. “Only 7 percent told us that they thought they were making mistakes,” Rees-Jones said. “When we asked them if they would regret any cases where they had a discrepancy between choice and well-being, 23 percent said yes. In both cases the vast majority said no, it wasn’t a mistake, and no, they wouldn’t regret it.”

“Overall, this indicates that many are willing to pursue a course that sacrifices happiness in favor of other important goals,” said Rees-Jones. “These respondents seem to indicate that maximizing happiness was not perceived to be in their own best interest. However, even if happiness is only one of many goals, it was still the strongest single predictor of choice in our data.”


Word Association: Study Maps Complex Thought

Via MedicalXpress, text from Princeton University

In an effort to understand what happens in the brain when a person reads or considers such abstract ideas as love or justice, Princeton researchers have for the first time matched images of brain activity with categories of words related to the concepts a person is thinking about. The results could lead to a better understanding of how people consider meaning and context when reading or thinking.

The researchers report in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify areas of the brain activated when study participants thought about physical objects such as a carrot, a horse or a house. The researchers then generated a list of topics related to those objects and used the fMRI images to determine the brain activity that words within each topic shared. For instance, thoughts about “eye” and “foot” produced similar neural stirrings as other words related to body parts.

Once the researchers knew the brain activity a topic sparked, they were able to use fMRI images alone to predict the subjects and words a person likely thought about during the scan. This capability to put people’s brain activity into words provides an initial step toward further exploring themes the human brain touches upon during complex thought.

“The basic idea is that whatever subject matter is on someone’s mind — not just topics or concepts, but also, emotions, plans or socially oriented thoughts — is ultimately reflected in the pattern of activity across all areas of his or her brain,” said the team’s senior researcher, Matthew Botvinick, an associate professor in Princeton’s Department of Psychology and in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.

“The long-term goal is to translate that brain-activity pattern into the words that likely describe the original mental ‘subject matter,'” Botvinick said. “One can imagine doing this with any mental content that can be verbalized, not only about objects, but also about people, actions and abstract concepts and relationships. This study is a first step toward that more general goal.

“If we give way to unbridled speculation, one can imagine years from now being able to ‘translate’ brain activity into written output for people who are unable to communicate otherwise, which is an exciting thing to consider. In the short term, our technique could be used to learn more about the way that concepts are represented at the neural level — how ideas relate to one another and how they are engaged or activated.”

The research, which was published Aug. 23, was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Depicting a person’s thoughts through text is a “promising and innovative method” that the Princeton project introduces to the larger goal of correlating brain activity with mental content, said Marcel Just, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. The Princeton researchers worked from brain scans Just had previously collected in his lab, but he had no active role in the project.

“The general goal for the future is to understand the neural coding of any thought and any combination of concepts,” Just said. “The significance of this work is that it points to a method for interpreting brain activation patterns that correspond to complex thoughts.”

Tracking the brain’s ‘semantic threads’

Largely designed and conducted in Botvinick’s lab by lead author and Princeton postdoctoral researcher Francisco Pereira, the study takes a currently popular approach to neuroscience research in a new direction, Botvinick said. He, Pereira and coauthor Greg Detre, who earned his Ph.D. from Princeton in 2010, based their work on various research endeavors during the past decade that used brain-activity patterns captured by fMRI to reconstruct pictures that participants viewed during the scan.

“This ‘generative’ approach — actually synthesizing something, an artifact, from the brain-imaging data — is what inspired us in our study, but we generated words rather than pictures,” Botvinick said.

“The thought is that there are many things that can be expressed with language that are more difficult to capture in a picture. Our study dealt with concrete objects, things that are easy to put into a picture, but even then there was an interesting difference between generating a picture of a chair and generating a list of words that a person associates with ‘chair.'”

Those word associations, lead author Pereira explained, can be thought of as “semantic threads” that can lead people to think of objects and concepts far from the original subject matter yet strangely related.

“Someone will start thinking of a chair and their mind wanders to the chair of a corporation then to Chairman Mao — you’d be surprised,” Pereira said. “The brain tends to drift, with multiple processes taking place at the same time. If a person thinks about a table, then a lot of related words will come to mind, too. And we thought that if we want to understand what is in a person’s mind when they think about anything concrete, we can follow those words.”

Pereira and his co-authors worked from fMRI images of brain activity that a team led by Just and fellow Carnegie Mellon researcher Tom Mitchell, a professor of computer science, published in the journal Science in 2008. For those scans, nine people were presented with the word and picture of five concrete objects from 12 categories. The drawing and word for the 60 total objects were displayed in random order until each had been shown six times. Each time an image and word appeared, participants were asked to visualize the object and its properties for three seconds as the fMRI scanner recorded their brain activity.

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Behind the Peloton 2011 – Season Three

From Cervélo

Your Brain in Cities

Via Guardian, by Alok Jha

The part of the brain that senses danger becomes overactive in city-dwellers when they are under stress.

The brains of people living in cities operate differently from those in rural areas, according to a brain-scanning study. Scientists found that two regions, involved in the regulation of emotion and anxiety, become overactive in city-dwellers when they are stressed and argue that the differences could account for the increased rates of mental health problems seen in urban areas.

Previous research has shown that people living in cities have a 21% increased risk of anxiety disorders and a 39% increased risk of mood disorders. In addition, the incidence of schizophrenia is twice as high in those born and brought up in cities.

In the new study, Professor Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the University of Heidelberg in Germany scanned the brains of more than 50 healthy volunteers, who lived in a range of locations from rural areas to large cities, while they were engaged in difficult mental arithmetic tasks. The experiments were designed to make the groups of volunteers feel anxious about their performance.

The results, published in Nature, showed that the amygdala of participants who currently live in cities was over-active during stressful situations. “We know what the amygdala does; it’s the danger-sensor of the brain and is therefore linked to anxiety and depression,” said Meyer-Lindenberg.

Another region called the cingulate cortex was overactive in participants who were born in cities. “We know [the cingulate cortex] is important for controlling emotion and dealing with environmental adversity.”

This excess activity could be at the root of the observed mental health problems, said Meyer-Lindenberg. “We speculate that stress might cause these abnormalities in the first place – that speculation lies outside what we can show in our study, it is primarily based on the fact that this specific brain area is very sensitive to developmental stress. If you stress an animal, you will find even structural abnormalities in that area and those may be enduring and make an animal anxious. What we’re proposing is that stress causes these things and stress is where they are expressed and then lead to an increased risk of mental illness.”

By 2050, almost 70% of people are predicted to be living in urban areas. On average, city dwellers are “wealthier and receive improved sanitation, nutrition, contraception and healthcare”, wrote the researchers in Nature. But urban living is also associated with “increased risk for chronic disorders, a more demanding and stressful social environment and greater social disparities. The biological components of this complex landscape of risk and protective factors remain largely uncharacterised.”

In an accompanying commentary in Nature, Dr Daniel Kennedy and Prof Ralph Adolphs, both at the California Institute of Technology, said that there are wide variations in a people’s preferences for, and ability to cope with, city life.

“Some thrive in New York city; others would happily swap it for a desert island. Psychologists have found that a substantial factor accounting for this variability is the perceived degree of control that people have over their daily lives. Social threat, lack of control and subordination are all likely candidates for mediating the stressful effects of city life, and probably account for much of the individual differences.”

Working out what factors in a city cause the stress in the first place is the next step in trying to understand the mental health effects of urban areas. Meyer-Lindenberg said that social fragmentation, noise or over-crowding might all be factors. “There’s prior evidence that if someone invades your personal space, comes too close to you, it’s exactly that amygdala-cingulate circuit that gets [switched on] so it could be something as simple as density.”

He said the research could be used, in future, to inform city design.

“What we can do is try and make cities better places to live in from the view of mental health. Up to now, there really isn’t a lot of evidence-base to tell a city planner what would be good, what would be bad.”

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Love, Suspiciously

From Wired, by Bruce Bower

Oxytocin, a hormone with a rosy reputation for getting people to love, trust and generally make nice with one another, can get down and dirty, according to evidence presented on Jan. 28 at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

This brain-altering substance apparently amplifies whatever social proclivities a person already possesses, whether positive or negative, says psychologist Jennifer Bartz of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

Previous work has shown that a nasal blast of the hormone encourages a usually trusting person to become more trusting (Science News Online: May 21, 2008), but now Bartz and her colleagues find that it also makes a highly suspicious person more uncooperative and hostile than ever.

“Oxytocin does not simply make everyone feel more secure, trusting and prosocial,” Bartz says.

These new results raise concerns about plans by some researchers to administer oxytocin to people with autism and other psychiatric conditions that include social difficulties, she adds.

Her team studied 14 people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and 13 volunteers with no psychiatric conditions. Symptoms of borderline personality disorder include severe insecurity about relationships, fears of abandonment and constant, needy reassurance-seeking from partners.

Borderline personality disorder usually occurs in women, but Bartz’s sample included four men. Her group of healthy participants included seven men.

Members of each group played a computer game with an experimenter posing as a research volunteer. In each of three rounds, volunteers had to predict whether their partner would cooperate with them, so that each player could make $6, or if the partner would leave the game in order to claim $4 alone.

Volunteers who suspected the partner of bad intent could leave the game early and claim $4 for themselves.

Borderline personality players of both sexes left the game early far more often after receiving an oxytocin nasal spray than after whiffing a placebo spray. Inhaling the hormone prodded their already high levels of hostile suspicion and depleted minimal reserves of trust, Bartz suggests.

Psychiatrically healthy players became more cooperative in the money game after getting oxytocin, relative to their placebo responses.

Nasally inhaling oxytocin also magnifies men’s memories of their mothers as being either supportive or not, Bartz says. Her team had 31 men fill out surveys on the quality of their relationships with their mothers up to age 16.

Those who described good maternal relationships remembered mom as substantially more caring and supportive after receiving oxytocin, compared with after inhaling a placebo spray. Those whose early home life had been troubled remembered mom as much less caring and supportive after oxytocin, versus placebo.

Bartz’s team initially described oxytocin’s two-sided influence on men’s maternal memories in the Dec. 14 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

These findings underscore that “oxytocin is not a love hormone; its effects vary in different people,” remarks psychologist Greg Norman of Ohio State University in Columbus.

Norman and his colleagues have found that oxytocin stimulates the heart to beat more in sync with the breathing cycle in people with healthy social lives, but not in people who report constant loneliness.

Other researchers have recently reported that oxytocin stimulates greater trust of members of one’s own ethnic group and greater suspicion of other ethnicities.

Image: Foxtongue/Flickr.

In Attracting Females, Male Bowerbirds Rely on Optical Effects

Via PhysOrg

Bowerbird males are well known for making elaborate constructions, lavished with decorative objects, to impress and attract their mates. Now, researchers reporting online on September 9 in Current Biology have identified a completely new dimension to these showy structures in great bowerbirds. The birds create a staged scene, only visible from the point of view of their female audience, by placing pebbles, bones, and shells around their courts in a very special way that can make objects (or a bowerbird male) appear larger or smaller than they really are.

“Great bowerbirds are the first known animals besides humans who create a scene with altered visual perspective for viewing by other individuals,” said John Endler of Deakin University in Australia. (He says the same principle is commonly used to make structures or scenes of buildings, gardens, or amusement parks appear larger than they are; bowerbirds appear to use it for the reverse effect, to make a scene appear smaller than it is.)

The effect only works from one viewing angle. Great bowerbirds ensure that females will see their courts from one particular spot by constructing an avenue—two rows of tightly packed sticks with a stick floor—that opens onto a court. That court is essentially a stage where the male displays for females.

Endler noticed something that had apparently been missed before, in part, he suspects, because no one had considered the females’ viewpoint before. The great bowerbirds line their courts with objects whose absolute size increases with distance from the avenue entrance and the female viewers.

That makes the sizes of things appear to be more regular, a feature that might be aesthetically appealing to the birds and might also help the males to stand out. But there might be another advantage. Assuming the birds see things essentially the same way we do, that forced perspective could lead females to “perceive the court as smaller than it is and therefore perhaps perceive the male as larger than he is,” Endler suggested.

Experimental manipulation of the courts by the researchers showed how important that geometrical pattern must be to the males. “When we reversed the gradient—putting smaller objects further away and larger objects closer to the avenue- the birds put the gradient back in three days.”

Endler said it isn’t yet completely clear why the males do this. Other aspects of bower decoration have been shown to influence mating success, and it is possible that the quality of the forced perspective may be yet another way that females pick a winner. The researchers are now conducting experiments using motion-activated video cameras to test whether the size gradients are related to mating success.

It’s also not clear how mentally challenging it really is for the birds to manage this feat. The males might get things placed just right through trial and error. But they may actually have a direct sense of perspective and “know” to put small objects close and larger objects further away, Endler says. That’s something else the researchers intend to tease out through further investigation.

And that brings Endler to one last big question, whose answer is problematic even when one is talking about humans: Is it art?

For Endler, the answer is yes. “Visual art can be defined as the creation of an external visual pattern by one individual in order to influence the behavior of others, and an artistic sense is the ability to create art,” he says. “Influencing behavior can range from attraction to and voluntary viewing of the art by others to viewers mating with the artist; this is what bowerbirds do. Our definition equates art with conventional signals that are not part of the artist’s body. In this sense, bowerbirds are artists and their viewers judge the art, implying an aesthetic sense in birds.”

The Rich Have More Money, But the Poor are Rich in Heart

Via PhysOrg

The world could one day be an economically equal place, if the lower-income population have anything to do with it. In an interesting yet disheartening series of socioeconomic experiments, led by a team of UC Berkeley researchers, the findings are that those on the lower-income levels are more likely to give and be charitable than their higher paid counterparts.

In one experiment in particular, led by doctoral student, Paul Piff and his researchers, participants completed a questionnaire reporting their socioeconomic status and a few days later were provided with $10 to share anonymously. The findings concluded the more generous of the income brackets were on the lower-income scale. A recent national survey reiterates the results, revealing lower-income people give more of their hard-earned money to charity than the wealthy.

At a time when the richest one percent of Americans own more than the bottom 90 percent combined, Piff and his colleagues’ findings are more than a little timely. “Our data suggests that an ironic and self-perpetuating dynamic may in part explain this trend,” the study researchers write, to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Whereas lower-class individuals may give more of their resources away, upper-class individuals may tend to preserve and hold onto their wealth. This differential pattern of giving versus saving among upper–and lower– class people could serve to exacerbate economic inequality in society.”

Piff and his researchers, including Greater Good Science Center Faculty , Dacher Keltner, conducted a second experiment based on the definitive psychological evidence that the less people have, the more they give. The participants did an exercise stating how they felt people should divvy their annual income. They were able to choose from charitable contributions, recreation, food, and other miscellaneous things. The point of the activity was to make them feel higher or lower on the status bar. It showed, again, those on the lower end, thought a higher percentage should be charitable.

The researchers also found evidence that the likelihood of executing other compassionate, generous tasks and behaviors might be explained by their higher concern for equality and empathy for others. Though on the other end, when researchers provoked compassion in the higher-class participants, they were just as much — if not more — socially conscious as the lower-class participants. The researchers felt being “rich or “poor” wouldn’t necessarily indicate social behaviors, but it is the starting level of compassion they might feel for others.

Prior research, found by Piff and his colleagues, suggests lower income people might be more compassionate because they’re more closely rooted to and dependent on others, therefore more empathetic. It’s also thought the more money the lower-earning people make in their lifetime and the higher their status becomes. As a result of it, the ability to connect with others’ point-of-view disappears, including the low-income population they were once ties to.

Sex Boosts Brain Growth, Study Suggests

Via Live Science

Sex apparently can help the brain grow, according to new findings in rats.

Sexually active rodents also seemed less anxious than virgins, Princeton scientists discovered.

Past findings had shown that stressful, unpleasant events could stifle brain cell growth in adults. To see if pleasant albeit stressful experiences could have the opposite effect, researchers studied the effects of sex in rats.

Scientists played matchmaker by giving adult male rats access to sexually receptive females either once daily for two weeks or just once in two weeks. They also measured blood levels of stress hormones known as glucocorticoids, which researchers suspected might lie behind the detrimental effects that unpleasant experiences have on the brain.

When compared with male virgins, both groups of sexually active rats had cell proliferation, or an increase in the number of neurons, in the hippocampus, a part of the brain linked with memory whose cells are especially sensitive to unpleasant experiences. The rats that had more sex also had adult brain cells grow, as well as a rise in the number of connections between brain cells.

However, the rodents that only saw females once in two weeks had elevated levels of stress hormones, while the rats that had regular access showed no increase in the hormones. Sexually experienced rodents also proved less anxious than virgins, in that they were quicker to chomp down on food in unfamiliar environs.

These findings suggest that while stress hormones can be detrimental to the brain, these effects can be overridden if whatever experiences triggered them were pleasant.

Happy People are More Creative

From Sunday Mercury, by Daniel Smith

Outgoing people in a good mood are significantly more creative than people who keep themselves to themselves, according to a new study.

University of Portsmouth psychologist Lorenzo Stafford discovered that extrovert people in a good mood are the most creative thinkers because they have more of the “happiness chemical” dopamine.

Introverts are no more creative whether they are in a good or neutral mood, the study found.

Dr Stafford said his results showed personality and mood play a vital role in creativity.

Extroverts are likely to be more successful because a higher than average level of the chemical floods the brain at even higher doses when a person is in a good mood, according to Dr Stafford.

“The more outgoing a person is, the more active their dopamine system is and a positive mood increases dopamine activity even further in many parts of the brain,” he explained.

“It’s effectively a combination of these two things I would suggest leads to greater activity in certain areas of the brain controlling mental ability.

“This is interesting in itself because it demonstrates that it is the combination of the extrovert personality-type in a positive mood which encourages more creative performance, and not simply positive mood alone.”

Dopamine occurs naturally in the brain and affects a range of behaviour including mood, sleep, reward, learning and movement.

Our Brains Work Like the Internet

Via BBC, by Jason Palmer

The brain appears to be a vastly interconnected network much like the Internet, according to new research.

That runs counter to the 19th-Century “top-down” view of brain structure.

A novel technique to track signals across tiny brain regions has revealed connections between regions associated with stress, depression and appetite.

The research, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may lead to a full map of the nervous system.

Larry Swanson and Richard Thompson from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, US, isolated a small section of a rat’s brain in the nucleus accumbens – a brain region long associated with pleasure and reward.

Their technique hinges on the injection of “tracers” at precise points in the brain tissue. These are molecules that do not interfere with the movement of signals across the tissue, but can be illuminated and identified using a microscope.

Loops not lines

What is new is that the researchers injected two tracers at the same point at the same time: one that showed where signals were going, and one that showed where they were coming from. The approach can show up to four levels of connection.

If the brain has a hierarchichal structure like a large company, as neurology has long held, the “to” and “from” diagram would show straight lines from independent regions up towards a central processing unit: the company’s boss.

But instead, the researchers saw loops between differing regions, feeding back to and directly linking regions that were not known to communicate with one another. This is a better fit with the model of vast networks such as the internet.

The region of the brain studied by the researchers displays a network connecting regions associated with stress, appetite and depression.

Such a highly interconnected structure has been hypothesised for some time, and could prove to be a powerful tool in analysing how the brain processes information. But it had not, until now, been demonstrated experimentally.

“You would be amazed at how much of the current experimental neuroscience literature is dominated by ‘top down-bottom up thinking’, which goes back to the 19th Century, especially in neurology,” Professor Swanson told BBC News.

“The bottom line is that no matter what you might think, the circuitry we’ve shown – that specific set of structural connections – has not been demonstrated before.”

The work illuminates just one tiny corner of the vast number of connections present even in a small mammal’s brain. But by slightly overlapping one mapped region with another, and mapping that, a far greater picture could emerge.

“This method is repeatable in a sensible way so that neural networks can be followed as far as they go – ultimately to the whole wiring diagram of the brain,” Professor Swanson said.

Such a diagram would be boundlessly complex, and the degree to which it could shed light on the more slippery questions of consciousness and cognition is still up for debate.

“We have no idea right now, but the direct analogy is with the Human Genome Project: taking on faith that knowing the complete sequence of human DNA would be a foundation stone for biology, no matter how long the understanding may take to realise in practical terms.”

One model of the mind describes its powers as arising from a vastly interconnected network.