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Saturday
Dec212013

Neuroscience Explains Why the Grinch Stole Christmas 

"You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch."

But why?

We all know Dr. Seuss's iconic tale of the green ogre who lives on a mountain, seething while the Whos in the village below celebrate Christmas. The happier they are, the angrier he gets, until finally he can't take it anymore and hatches a plan to steal away their joy.

Dr. Seuss was a brilliant intuitive psychologist, and I'd have loved to chat with him about the core of the Grinch's rage, but, alas, he left us too early. So I'm turning to another impressive thinker who has taught me a great deal about the neurobiology of emotion: Dr. John Cacioppo, a pioneer in the field of social neuroscience and co-author of the book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

Cacioppo has conducted a wealth of research about the effects of loneliness on the human brain. We're not talking about physical loneliness (although that can be part of the equation); we're talking about a sense of loneliness that someone in the midst of thousands of people can feel.  I saw an interview with John Bon Jovi who was describing the feeling he gets after he leaves the stage. Surrounded by tens of thousands of fans, you might think that he'd have no reason to feel lonely—but when he goes back to his hotel room, those thousands of people screaming his name may as well not exist at all. He feels alone despite being the center of a publicity universe.

That's much closer to the sort of loneliness Cacioppo studies, and it's especially relevant in the age of social media, where someone might have 2,000 Facebook friends and yet feel like they're completely alone in the world.  

If Cacioppo could persuade the Grinch to step into his MRI, he'd likely observe a result consistent with those of a 2009 brain imaging study he conducted to identify differences in the neural mechanisms of lonely and nonlonely people.   Specifically, he wanted to know what's going on in the brains of individuals with an acute sense of "social isolation"—a key ingredient in loneliness that has nothing to do with being physically alone, and everything to do with feeling alone. 

While in an MRI machine, subjects viewed a series of images, some with positive connotations, such as happy people doing fun things, and others with negative associations, such as scenes of human conflict.  As the two groups watched pleasant imagery, the area of the brain that recognizes rewards showed a significantly greater response in nonlonely people than in lonely people. Similarly, the visual cortex of lonely subjects responded much more strongly to unpleasant images of people than to unpleasant images of objects—suggesting that the attention of lonely people is especially drawn to human conflict. Nonlonely subjects showed no such difference.

In short, people with an acute sense of social isolation appear to have a reduced response to things that make most people happy, and a heightened response to human conflict.  This explains a lot about people who not only seem to wallow in unhappiness, but also seem obsessed with the emotional "drama" of others. Every office has a few people just like that.

The Grinch is easier to understand given these findings. He is physically isolated (except for his dog), but more importantly he's socially isolated. He feels no sense of connection to the citizens of Whoville, though they live just outside his mountain lair. Watching them surround themselves with happy things like ornaments and gifts and food ticks him off, so he determines to inject some strife into the festivities and revel in the fallout. 

Fortunately, the Grinch has an epiphany (a Gestalt moment) that makes him not only want to return everything to Whoville, but participate in the merriment as well. The real-life corollary would probably include a couple years of therapy, but Dr. Seuss makes the point well enough: there is redemption for those suffering from loneliness.  It requires genuine connection with others—not faces in a cheering crowd or numbers on a Facebook page. Those things might supplement real relationships, but they can't replace them. 

And that, it seems to me, is the heart of the holidays: they are ritualized reminders that none of us are islands, and that no matter how many people surround us, we're only at our best when we allow some of them to be part of us.  

Happy holidays.  

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available at AmazonBarnes and Noble and other major booksellers.

Thursday
Dec192013

New Study Asks: What Kind Of Bored Are You?

Most of us think we already know what it means to be bored, and we’ll look for just about any diversion to avoid the feeling.  But according to recent research, boredom is not a one-size-fits-all problem — what triggers or alleviates one person’s boredom won’t necessarily hold sway for someone else.

According to researchers publishing in the journal Motivation and Emotion, there are four well-established types of boredom:

Indifferent boredom (characterized by feeling relaxed and indifferent – typical coach potato boredom);

Calibrating boredom (characterized by feeling uncertain but also receptive to change/distraction);

Searching boredom (characterized by feeling restless and actively searching for change/distraction); and

Reactant boredom (characterized by feeling reactive, i.e. someone bored out of her mind storming out of a movie theater to find something better to do).

The most recent study by the boredom-defining research team has now identified a fifth type--apathetic boredom--and it's the most troublesome of all. People exhibiting apathetic boredom are withdrawn, avoid social contact, and are most likely to suffer from depression. In fact, apathetic boredom could be considered a portal leading to depression.

The sort of remedy that would alleviate “searching bordeom”—actively pursuing change—would not help someone with apathetic boredom, because change itself represents too much of a threat. Apathetic boredom feeds on itself, perpetuating over and over the same feelings that make it so difficult to escape. The uncertainty of change is just another reason to stay cloistered away.

Study co-author Dr. Thomas Goetz of the University of Konstanz and the research team conducted two real-time experiments over two weeks involving students from German universities and high schools. Participants were given personal digital assistants to record their activities, experiences and feelings throughout the day for the duration of the study. The results showed that not only do different people experience different types of boredom, but also that people don't typically switch-hit between flavors of boredom – any given person will tend to predominantly experience one type of boredom far more than others.

The most alarming finding of the study is that apathetic boredom was reported by almost 40 percent of the high school students, suggesting a link between apathetic boredom and rising numbers of depressed teens.

The obvious drawback of this research is that participants self-reported their feelings and experiences during the study period, and self-reporting is often unreliable.  On the plus side, the researchers ran the study for two full weeks instead of just a few days, and had far more data to analyze as a result.

The research was published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available at AmazonBarnes and Noble and other major booksellers.

Wednesday
Dec042013

Why Cheating Is Like A Drug 

Every so often a news story comes out about a celebrity caught shoplifting. The standard response is “Why?” The reason isn’t lack of money, and it’s certainly not that getting arrested is good for the celeb's career, so what would make an A-lister take the chance?

New research suggests that, for some people, stealing or cheating has much in common with doing a line of cocaine – it’s all about the buzz.  Psychologists call it the "Cheater’s High."

Researchers from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington conducted three experiments to test the theory.  The first used a cash reward as the carrot for solving word puzzles. The researchers set up the experiment in such a way that participants had a chance to illicitly get a look at the correct answers, with the expectation that many of them would use the answers to cheat on the test. As predicted, more than 40% of the participants cheated. After the test, participants were asked to report on their emotions. Researchers found that the cheaters consistently reported a bigger boost in positive emotion (such as a sense of “self-satisfaction”) compared to those who didn’t cheat.

In a follow-up study, the research team removed the financial-reward factor (which by itself could spark positive emotions) and asked a different group of participants to solve a series of math problems on a computer.  Once again, the test was set up so that participants could—if they chose—get a peek at the answers. This time almost 70% of participants cheated, and once again they reported higher levels of positive emotion than the non-cheaters, despite not winning any money.

In the final study, the research team used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey site to recruit 205 people online and offered them a chance to win cash for solving word puzzles. The researchers sent a portion of the participants a message that they were on the “honor system” when reporting their answers because the researchers wouldn’t be able to tell if they were cheating (in truth, they actually could tell). The purpose of the message was to remove the possibility that cheaters weren’t aware that they were cheating, or that they might “play dumb” about having cheated. The message also implied that if the participants chose to cheat, they were in effect stealing the money.

The results in this case were even more significant: not only did the cheaters report more positive emotion than non-cheaters, but the cheaters who received the warning message reported even greater self-satisfaction than cheaters who didn’t get the message.

The research team’s takeaway from all three experiments is that the cheaters high is sparked by the thrill of getting away with it.  The final experiment showed this most clearly, because the plain face truth that participants were knowingly cheating actually increased their “high.”

Since this study only focused on cheating and stealing, it's not clear that the same dynamic plays out in cases where someone directly harms another person, which would of course be hard to test for obvious reasons.

The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available at AmazonBarnes and Noble and other major booksellers.

Sunday
Dec012013

Study: Making Direct Eye Contact Is Not An Effective Way To Persuade

Few popular beliefs are as unshakable as, “If you want to influence someone, always make direct eye contact.” But new research suggests that this bit of sturdy pop lore is hardly gospel – in fact, in many circumstances a direct gaze may result in the exact opposite effect.

Researchers from Harvard, the University of British Columbia and the University of Freiberg used newly developed eye-tracking technology to test the claim during two experiments.  In the first, they had study participants watch a speaker on video while tracking their eye movements, and then asked how persuaded they were by the speaker. Researchers found that the more time participants spent looking into the speaker’s eyes, the less persuaded they were by the speaker's argument. The only time looking into the speaker’s eyes correlated with being influenced was when the participants already agreed with the speaker’s opinions.

So the first takeaway is: when a speaker gives an opinion contrary to the audiences’, looking into her or his eyes has the exact opposite of the intended effect.

In a second experiment, some participants were told to look into the speaker’s eyes and others were told to watch the speaker’s mouth. Once again, participants who looked into the speaker's eyes were less receptive to his opposing arguments, and also said they were less inclined to interact with advocates of the speaker’s argument.

Which leaves us with another takeaway contrary to the popular belief: if your audience is already skeptical of your arguments, looking into your eyes will not only reinforce their skepticism, but also make them less likely to interact with others expressing your views.

According to Julia Minson of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, co-lead researcher of the studies, “The findings highlight the fact that eye contact can signal very different kinds of messages depending on the situation. While eye contact may be a sign of connection or trust in friendly situations, it's more likely to be associated with dominance or intimidation in adversarial situations.”

Her advice to everyone from parents to politicians: “It might be helpful to keep in mind that trying to maintain eye contact may backfire if you're trying to convince someone who has a different set of beliefs than you.”

In the next round of research, the team is going to investigate whether eye contact in certain situations correlates with patterns of brain activity associated with responding to a threat, and an increase in stress hormones and heart rate.

There’s a corollary to these findings that’s found throughout the animal world, one that everyone who deals with everything from dogs to gorillas already knows – looking directly into a potentially aggressive animal’s eyes is not a good idea. The gesture is taken as a threat and might draw an attack.

Quoting another of the researchers, Frances Chen, “Eye contact is so primal that we think it probably goes along with a whole suite of subconscious physiological changes.”

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available at AmazonBarnes and Noble and other major booksellers.

Saturday
Nov232013

Why Willpower Fails You And What To Do About It