Tag Archives: psychology

Why Students Chose to Shock Themselves Rather Than Sit Alone With Their Thoughts

We live in a world saturated with sensory stimulations. From our cell phones to our laptops and TVs, almost our entire day is a marathon of sights and sounds, all competing for our increasingly short attention spans.

So you would think most people would enjoy the opportunity to get away from it all and gather their thoughts. But a recent study from the University of Virginia found quite the opposite.

In fact, many of the participants even started giving themselves electric shocks as their time alone dragged on.

Psychologist Timothy Wilson led the study, which was recently published in the journal Science. He had this to say about the results:

“I think many of them were trying to shock themselves out of boredom… It’s just a sign of how difficult (being alone with one’s thoughts) can be for people…. This isn’t something that most people find really enjoyable.”

Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia

For the study, 55 college students agreed to give up all distractions (like cell phones, tablets and mp3 players) and spend between six and 15 minutes in a sparsely furnished room on UVA’s campus. Afterwards they were asked to rate their enjoyment on a scale of 1-9.

The average rating was pretty much right in the middle. In other words, the average student was pretty much indifferent to the idea of  spending a few minutes alone.

The results also meant that half of the students rated the experience as unpleasant. But the most unsettling findings involved the electric shock.

Before entering the room, participants were given an electric shock on their ankle so that they could gauge how painful it was. They were then told that they could shock themselves again during their time alone if they wanted to.

Of the 55 participants, 42 said that they would be willing to pay to avoid being shocked again. But shockingly (pun intended), 18 of these 42 students (~43%) ended up shocking themselves anyways.

It seems that the students decided that even a jolt of pain was worth it to break the boredom of their seclusion.

Wilson was definitely surprised by the results. It baffled him that it was so difficult for the students to use their brains to entertain themselves:

“All of us have pleasant memories we can call upon, we can construct stories and fantasies.”

But he thinks that the unfamiliar environment (ie. an empty room) throws off our normal thought processes:

“I think it’s an issue of mental control. The mind is built to engage in the world and when you give it nothing to engage it, it’s hard to keep one train of thought going for very long.”

Wilson added that he didn’t think the phenomenon was a modern one, because there were complaints of people not taking the time to sit and contemplate as far back as ancient Roman times.

Personally, I think this is a pretty weak justification for his hypothesis. Ancient Rome was a very advanced society for its time, but it was a far cry from our modern world technologically.

The average Roman had to spend a much larger portion of their time doing typically grueling physical labor, leaving them physically exhausted at the end of the day.

In our modern world, many of us still come home from work exhausted, but it’s more a result of brain exhaustion than the overworking our bodies.

Also, we have become extremely dependent on our mobile devices in the last decade or so. It’s become instinct for young people to check Twitter/Facebook/Instagram any time we get bored, and I think the students in the study experienced some withdrawals when they no longer had access to this digital crutch.

Whatever the case may be, the results of the study should make all of us take a look at our own lives and see where we can find time to reflect and make sense of all the information we process in this fast-paced world.

The average brain is only able to process seven pieces of information at a time (this is why phone numbers are an area code plus seven numbers). Our smartphones alone constantly take up a significant portion of these seven slots (thinking about your texts, a picture you just Instagrammed and a Tweet you just read is already 3 of those 7 slots).

This is why it’s so important to make time to sort through your thoughts, free of any other distractions. You may be surprised at what you find in your own mind when you take the time to listen.

Read more from CTV here.

How Scientists Predicted With 70% Accuracy Which 14-Year-Olds Would Be Binge Drinkers By 16

Five years ago, Robert Whelan, a former postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at University of Vermont (UVM) and current lecturer at University College in Dublin, joined forces with Hugh Garavan, associate professor of psychiatry at UVM.

The pair of psychiatric researchers wanted to see if they could determine the factors that predicted binge drinking in teens.

In the largest longitudinal (long-term) adolescent brain imaging study to date, they gathered 2,400 14-year-olds from 8 regions across Europe, putting each of them through 10 hours of assessments. These tests included, “neuroimaging to assess brain activity and brain structure, along with other measures such as IQ, cognitive task performance, personality and blood tests”.

The amount of reported drinking in high school has actually been slowly decreasing in recent years

Here’s Robert Whelan describing the researchers’ hopes for the study:

“Our goal was to develop a model to better understand the relative roles of brain structure and function, personality, environmental influences and genetics in the development of adolescent abuse of alcohol… This multidimensional risk profile of genes, brain function and environmental influences can help in the prediction of binge drinking at age 16 years.”

They have kept up with the teens since the initial tests 5 years ago, keeping track of which teens developed habits of binge drinking.

Whelan and Garavan’s study, recently published in the journal Nature, attempted to predict which teens would be binge drinking by the age of 16 using only the data collected when the teens were 14.

By examining around 40 different variables, including factors like brain function, genetics and family history, the researchers were able to design a unique analytical method to predict binge drinking in the test subjects. Here’s Hugh Garavan:

“Notably, it’s not the case that there’s a single one or two or three variables that are critical… The final model was very broad — it suggests that a wide mixture of reasons underlie teenage drinking.”

Hugh Garavan, professor of psychiatry at UVM

As Garavan points out, there weren’t a few major factors that were primarily responsible for putting teens at risk- rather, it was the combination of a number of different, seemingly unrelated factors that predisposed a teen to binge drinking.

The best predictors of binge drinking, according to Garavan, were personality, thrill-seeking tendencies, lack of conscientiousness, and a history of drug use in the family. Teens who had experienced stressful life events, like a divorce or family death, were also more likely to binge drink.

But there was another somewhat surprising find: bigger brains predicted higher chances of binge drinking. As our brains mature during adolescence, they destroy rarely-used neural connections to increase efficiency. This can actually shrink the brain.

Here’s Garavan again:

“There’s refining and sculpting of the brain, and most of the gray matter — the neurons and the connections between them, are getting smaller and the white matter is getting larger… Kids with more immature brains — those that are still larger — are more likely to drink.”

The brain is made up of millions of neurons- the connections or pathways between these neurons are what allow us to function. Pathways that we stop using (like that year of Icelandic you took for a foreign language credit) will eventually disappear

Putting all of these factors together, Whelan and Garavan created a model that predicted with 70% accuracy which 14-year-olds in the study would become binge drinkers by the age of 16.

Gunter Schumann is a professor of biological psychiatry who heads the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Center at the King’s College (London) Institute of Psychiatry. He was the principal investigator for the study. He hopes that this new research will help identify and support at-risk teens early on in their adolescence:

“We aimed to develop a ‘gold standard’ model for predicting teenage behavior, which can be used as a benchmark for the development of simpler, widely applicable prediction models… This work will inform the development of specific early interventions in carriers of the risk profile to reduce the incidence of adolescent substance abuse.”

Schumann also adds that the data collected from this study will be used to further investigate how environmental factors affect the development of patterns of substance use.

Read more from Science Daily here.

Facebook Just Manipulated the Emotions of 700,000 Users Without Informing Them

When you sign up for Facebook, you have to agree to a whole laundry list of fine-print terms and conditions (which almost nobody ever reads). One of the things you consent to is Facebook’s Data Use Policy, which gives Facebook the right to use your info for, “…troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

Well, it seems that Facebook has taken full advantage of the “research” portion of that agreement. A study published two weeks ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) revealed that Facebook recently carried out an experiment that involved manipulating user’s emotions.

Basically, Faceobook wanted to know if removing sad, angry or otherwise negative terms from a user’s News Feed would affect how happy or sad the statuses they posted were.

So they randomly selected 689,003 users and tweaked the computer algorithms that determine what pops up on your News Feed. Some of the users were fed primarily neutral to happy information and stories, while others were fed primarily neutral to sad or depressing information.

It probably comes as a surprise to nobody that the users who were fed more negative information tended to post more gloomy statuses.

Congratulations Facebook, you proved something that 99% of 5th graders could have probably just told you.

But what about all of the users who Facebook intentionally made sad? Some serious questions have been raised about the ethics of the experiment.

Any experiment that receives federal funding has to abide abide by a code of rules known as the Common Rule for human subjects. The Common Rule’s definition of consent requires the researchers to give the test subjects, “a description of any foreseeable risks or discomforts to the subject.”

Facebook clearly didn’t abide by that standard, but since the test wasn’t federally funded, they are technically exempt. However, the PNAS also has its own set of rules for publication. Unfortunately, they seem to have bent or broken a few of them to publish the Facebook study.

Most notably, PNAS‘s guidelines for publishing require that a study abide the principles of the Helsinki Declaration, which states that test subjects must be,

“…adequately informed of the aims, methods, sources of funding, any possible conflicts of interest, institutional affiliations of the researcher, the anticipated benefits and potential risks of the study and the discomfort it may entail.”

Clearly, manipulating the emotions of 700,000 oblivious users is a blatant violation of this principle. With most people getting the bulk of their news and information on Facebook, it’s pretty unsettling to find out that they’re doing mass psychological testing on us.

Read the original story from Slate here.

killing and alcohol

Soldiers Who Kill In Combat Are LESS Likely to Abuse Alcohol? Yes, According to This Study

Going to war is one of the most traumatic experiences anyone could ever imagine enduring. Every year, hundreds of soldiers return home from combat with serious cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

Struggling to re-adjust back into civilian society while simultaneously trying to cope with the psychological side-effects of being exposed to combat often leads war veterans to abuse alcohol and other drugs.

Click to enlarge

But a new study co-authored by Cristel Russell, a marketing professor with American University’s Kogod School of Business, and researchers from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research suggests that soldiers who actually kill in combat are in fact less likely to abuse alcohol after being discharged.

Here’s Russell talking about the results of the study:

“We were very surprised by the findings. Most previous research supported the prediction that more traumatic experiences would lead to more negative health outcomes, such as alcohol abuse. We found the opposite- that the most traumatic experiences of killing in combat actually led to a decrease in alcohol abuse post-deployment.”

Cirstel Russell, co-author of the study (Image courtesy of American University)

So why is it that taking the life of another, arguably the most traumatic thing a soldier can experience, leads to a smaller likelihood of alcohol abuse?

The researchers believe that the strange finding is the result of mortality salience. The theory is basically that taking the life of another human being increases a soldier’s sense of their own mortality and vulnerability, making them less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors. Here’s Russell again:

“We reason that a possible explanation may be that soldiers who experience killing during combat become more aware of their own vulnerability to death. Mortality salience is known to have effects on decisions that people make including, in our case, the decision to not take risks and abuse alcohol, presumably to live longer.”

To collect the data, the researchers surveyed 1,397 troops from an Army National Guard Infantry Brigade Combat Team three months before and after their deployment between 2005-2006. The surveys, answered anonymously, asked the soldiers questions about their substance use, with questions about combat experiences added to the post-deployment questionnaire.

The survey revealed that overall, alcohol use increased from 70.8% pre-deployment to 80.5% afterwards, and alcohol abuse increased by over 125%, from 8.51% to 19.15% post-deployment.

Russell and her team plan to do more research into how mortality salience effects soldiers’ behavior after they return from war.

Read more from the Parent Herald here.

A New Study from Stanford University Found That Walking Can Increase Creativity By Up to 60%

Have you ever been dealing with a particularly difficult situation and decided to take a walk to clear your head? Well, a new study from Stanford suggests that there is real scientific evidence that walking improves your creative thinking.

The recently published study was co-authored by Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral graduate in the field of educational psychology, and Daniel Schwartz, a professor of education at Stanford.

To test out the theory, the researchers compared levels of creative thinking under a number of different conditions: seated inside, seated outside and pushed in a wheelchair (to simulate the visual experience of walking), walking on a treadmill in a blank room and walking outside.

Stanford Professor and co-author of this study Daniel Schwartz

They measured creativity by assigning the participants a number of different tasks which required creative thinking. For example, participants were given several sets of three different objects and asked to think of uses for the objects other than their typical purpose. The fewer participants thought of a particular response, the more points it was given for creativity. They also eliminated responses that weren’t appropriate applications for the objects (saying that you could use a truck tire as a pinkie ring, for example).

The results: walking consistently created much higher levels of creativity than sitting. For the participants tested inside, walking on a treadmill increased creativity by 60% as compared to sitting.

In another test, participants were asked to come up with complex analogies from basic phrases. 100% of the participants walking outside were able to come up with at least one complex and completely original analogy, compared to just 50% of the participants seated inside.

The researchers did note, however, that walking didn’t seem to have any positive effects on the type of focused thinking we use when responding to problems with just one correct answer.

Read more from Stanford University here.

The Myth of the 12-Step Addiction Program: How It Actually Hurts Addicts

Dr. Lance Dodes is a psychiatrist and the author of the recently released book The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry.

He sat down for an interview with NPR last Sunday to talk about his book and its critiques of AA programs and the 12-step method.

He started off by pointing to the extremely low success rate of 12-step programs. While the rehab industry constantly publicizes the success stories, it is also trying to draw attention away from the fact that AA has a success rate of only 5-10%.

Dodes points out that for the other 90%, AA is actually harmful. Since it is lauded as being the best treatment for addiction, the majority of people who don’t make it through see it as a personal failure, rather than a problem with the structure of the program. This perceived failure lowers the self-esteem of the addict even further, which may very well lead to more substance abuse.

So what about the success stories of the other 5-10%? Dodes argues that this success is much more a result of the camaraderie built between addicts in the meetings rather than because of the 12-step program itself. Having a support group of people going through the same things as you makes it easier to successfully beat addiction. In fact, AA actually describes itself as a brotherhood, rather than a treatment.

Dodes admits he doesn’t have all the answers as to the best treatment methods, but advocates a more psychological approach:

“When people are confronted with a feeling of being trapped, of being overwhelmingly helpless, they have to do something. It isn’t necessarily the “something” that actually deals with the problem. … Why addiction, though — why drink? Well, that’s the “something” that they do. In psychology we call it a displacement; you could call it a substitute …

When people can understand their addiction and what drives it, not only are they able to manage it but they can predict the next time the addictive urge will come up, because they know the kind of things that will make them feel overwhelmingly helpless. Given that forewarning, they can manage it much better.

But unlike AA, I would never claim that what I’ve suggested is right for everybody. But … let’s say I had nothing better to offer: It wouldn’t matter — we still need to change the system as it is because we are harming 90 percent of the people.”

Dr. Lance Dodes (Photo: Beacon Press)

You can listen to the full interview on NPR (it’s only 5 and a half minutes long) here.

 

How Attempted Suicide Cured a Man’s OCD

The man, identified only as George, suffered from extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder, washing his hands hundreds of times a day and taking excessively frequent showers.

At the age of 19, George shot himself in the head, hoping to end the pain of OCD for good. He succeeded, but not at all in the way he had planned.

Miraculously, the bullet actually destroyed the left frontal lobe, the region of the brain that controls this obsessive behavior, without causing major damage to any other region.

Increased metabolic brain activity in OCD patient

Before the suicide attempt, George’s OCD had forced him to drop out of school and quit his job. When he was interviewed five years after the event (February 1988), he had found a new job and had returned to college, where he was a straight-A student, despite the fact his IQ score was exactly the same as it was before.

OCD affects around 100 million people annually. Read the full story here.

The OCD Cycle

Are We Teaching Kids Too Early? The Case for More Playtime In Childhood Education

A group of 130 education experts in the UK recently signed a letter published in the major British publication The Daily Telegraph advocating delaying the start of formal learning from the age of four (where it begins now) to the age of seven.

Vast amounts of data collected from anthropological, psychological, neuroscientific and educational studies have convinced these specialists that seven is a better age to begin formal schooling for a number of reason.

First is the value of play. Neuroscience studies have shown that,

playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.

Research in developmental psychology has also shown that playful approaches are much more effective than instructional approaches when it comes to information retention and motivation.

Social play (ie. playing with other children) has also been shown to be critical for the development of intellectual and emotional self-regulation skills in children. Further studies have shown that diminishing play opportunities for young children over the second half of the 20th century has caused an increase in stress and mental health problems for kids over this same time period.

An interesting study in New Zealand compared the literacy of two different groups of children: one started formal reading education at five  years old and the other at seven. By age 11 there was virtually no difference in the reading ability of the two groups, but,

the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.”

For more information, check out the link below:

http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/school-starting-age-the-evidence

Mean Girls- It’s Science

Mean Girls- It’s Science

(click link above for full story)

A recent study published by the Royal Society (or The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge if we’re being specific) suggests that women’s tendencies of meanness towards each other are actually evolutionary in nature. Previous research has already shown that,

more expendable men developed larger body size, use of weaponry and ritualized displays of aggression.”

But as a result of the “constraints of offspring production and care”, women developed low-risk forms of aggression, that is they learned how to be mean as a form of competition.

Even in modern society, women compete for resources needed to survive and more importantly to reproduce. Thus, the biggest competition between females is in finding a mate (no surprise there).

The study also found that women form, “coalitions or alliances may reduce risk of retaliation”, explaining why girls form cliques.

These same forms of aggression do develop in men as well, especially in the workplace and other environments where classic aggression is unacceptable.