1. Study suggests talking to yourself in the third person can help you control emotions

    August 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    The simple act of silently talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times may help you control emotions without any additional mental effort than what you would use for first-person self-talk — the way people normally talk to themselves.

    A first-of-its-kind study led by psychology researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan indicates that such third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of self-control. The findings are published online in Scientific Reports, a Nature journal.

    Say a man named John is upset about recently being dumped. By simply reflecting on his feelings in the third person (“Why is John upset?”), John is less emotionally reactive than when he addresses himself in the first person (“Why am I upset?”).

    “Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain,” said Jason Moser, MSU associate professor of psychology. “That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”

    The study, partially funded by the National Institutes of Health and the John Temple Foundation, involved two experiments that both significantly reinforced this main conclusion.

    In one experiment, at Moser’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab, participants viewed neutral and disturbing images and reacted to the images in both the first and third person while their brain activity was monitored by an electroencephalograph. When reacting to the disturbing photos (such as a man holding a gun to their heads), participants’ emotional brain activity decreased very quickly (within 1 second) when they referred to themselves in the third person.

    The MSU researchers also measured participants’ effort-related brain activity and found that using the third person was no more effortful than using first person self-talk. This bodes well for using third-person self-talk as an on-the-spot strategy for regulating one’s emotions, Moser said, as many other forms of emotion regulation require considerable thought and effort.

    In the other experiment, led by U-M psychology professor Ethan Kross, who directs the Emotion and Self-Control Lab, participants reflected on painful experiences from their past using first and third person language while their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or FMRI.

    Similar to the MSU study, participants’ displayed less activity in a brain region that is commonly implicated in reflecting on painful emotional experiences when using third person self-talk, suggesting better emotional regulation. Further, third person self-talk required no more effort-related brain activity than using first person.

    “What’s really exciting here,” Kross said, “is that the brain data from these two complimentary experiments suggest that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of emotion regulation.

    “If this ends up being true — we won’t know until more research is done — there are lots of important implications these findings have for our basic understanding of how self-control works, and for how to help people control their emotions in daily life.”

    Moser and Kross said their teams are continuing to collaborate to explore how third-person self-talk compares to other emotion-regulation strategies.


  2. Why some people are so sure they’re right, even when they are not

    by Ashley

    From the Case Western Reserve University press release:

    Dogmatic individuals hold confidently to their beliefs, even when experts disagree and evidence contradicts them. New research from Case Western Reserve University may help explain the extreme perspectives, on religion, politics and more, that seem increasingly prevalent in society.

    Two studies examine the personality characteristics that drive dogmatism in the religious and nonreligious. They show there are both similarities and important differences in what drives dogmatism in these two groups.

    In both groups, higher critical reasoning skills were associated with lower levels of dogmatism. But these two groups diverge in how moral concern influences their dogmatic thinking.

    “It suggests that religious individuals may cling to certain beliefs, especially those which seem at odds with analytic reasoning, because those beliefs resonate with their moral sentiments,” said Jared Friedman, a PhD student in organizational behavior and co-author of the studies.

    “Emotional resonance helps religious people to feel more certain — the more moral correctness they see in something, the more it affirms their thinking,” said Anthony Jack, associate professor of philosophy and co-author of the research. “In contrast, moral concerns make nonreligious people feel less certain.”

    This understanding may suggest a way to effectively communicate with the extremes, the researchers say. Appealing to a religious dogmatist’s sense of moral concern and to an anti-religious dogmatist’s unemotional logic may increase the chances of getting a message through — or at least some consideration from them.

    The research is published in the Journal of Religion and Health.

    Extreme positions

    While more empathy may sound desirable, untempered empathy can be dangerous, Jack said. “Terrorists, within their bubble, believe it’s a highly moral thing they’re doing. They believe they are righting wrongs and protecting something sacred.”

    In today’s politics, Jack said, “with all this talk about fake news, the Trump administration, by emotionally resonating with people, appeals to members of its base while ignoring facts.” Trump’s base includes a large percentage of self-declared religious men and women.

    At the other extreme, despite organizing their life around critical thinking, militant atheists, “may lack the insight to see anything positive about religion; they can only see that it contradicts their scientific, analytical thinking,” Jack said.

    The studies, based on surveys of more than 900 people, also found some similarities between religious and non-religious people. In both groups the most dogmatic are less adept at analytical thinking, and also less likely to look at issues from other’s perspectives.

    In the first study, 209 participants identified as Christian, 153 as nonreligious, nine Jewish, five Buddhist, four Hindu, one Muslim and 24 another religion. Each completed tests assessing dogmatism, empathetic concern, aspects of analytical reasoning, and prosocial intentions.

    The results showed religious participants as a whole had a higher level of dogmatism, empathetic concern and prosocial intentions, while the nonreligious performed better on the measure of analytic reasoning. Decreasing empathy among the nonreligious corresponded to increasing dogmatism.

    The second study, which included 210 participants who identified as Christian, 202 nonreligious, 63 Hindu, 12 Buddhist, 11 Jewish, 10 Muslim and 19 other religions, repeated much of the first but added measures of perspective-taking and religious fundamentalism.

    The more rigid the individual, whether religious or not, the less likely he or she would consider the perspective of others. Religious fundamentalism was highly correlated with empathetic concern among the religious.

    Two brain networks

    The researchers say the results of the surveys lend further support to their earlier work showing people have two brain networks — one for empathy and one for analytic thinking — that are in tension with each other. In healthy people, their thought process cycles between the two, choosing the appropriate network for different issues they consider.

    But in the religious dogmatist’s mind, the empathetic network appears to dominate while in the nonreligious dogmatist’s mind, the analytic network appears to rule.

    While the studies examined how differences in worldview of the religious vs. the nonreligious influence dogmatism, the research is broadly applicable, the researchers say. Dogmatism applies to any core beliefs, from eating habits — whether to be a vegan, vegetarian or omnivore — to political opinions and beliefs about evolution and climate change. The authors hope this and further research will help improve the divide in opinions that seems increasingly prevalent.


  3. Researchers crack the smile, describing three types by muscle movement

    August 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Wisconsin-Madison press release:

    The smile may be the most common and flexible expression, used to reveal some emotions, cover others and manage social interactions that have kept communities secure and organized for millennia.

    But how do we tell one kind of smile from another?

    “When distinguishing among smiles, both scientists and laypeople have tended to focus on true and false smiles. The belief is that if you smile when you’re not happy, the smile is false,” says Paula Niedenthal, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But people smile in many different circumstances and during many emotional states. So asserting that only smiles that result from states of happiness are ‘true’ smiles limits our understanding of this important facial expression.”

    Niedenthal and colleagues from Cardiff University and the University of Glasgow published a set of experiments that seek to expand our understanding of the human smile this week in the journal Psychological Science, showing three distinct, reliably recognized expressions — smiles of reward, affiliation and dominance — and describing the facial muscle combinations that make them.

    Each smile hinges on an anatomical feature known as the zygomaticus major, straps of facial muscle below the cheekbones that pull up the corners of the mouth. But it’s not the only muscle at work.

    Participants in the study looked at thousands of computer-generated expressions with random combinations of facial muscles activated — with one exception.

    “We varied everything that could be varied in an expression, but our stimuli included some action from the smile muscle, the zygomaticus,” says Magdalena Rychlowska, a postdoctoral researcher at Cardiff. “We asked participants to tell us when they see a reward or affiliative or a dominance smile, and when the expression is not a smile.”

    The researchers turned their participant-sorted smiles back on two more sets of observers, checking recognition and social messages until they had recipes for each smile.

    For example, a reward smile — “probably the most intuitive,” Niedenthal says, “the kind of smile you would use with a baby, so he will smile back or do things you like” — is a symmetrical hoist of zygomaticus muscles plus a dash of eyebrow lift and some sharp lip pulling.

    Affiliative smiles — used to communicate tolerance, acknowledgment, or a bond, and show that you’re not a threat — come with a similar symmetrical upturn to the mouth, but spread wider and thinner with pressed lips and no exposed teeth.

    Dominance smiles are used to signify status and manage social hierarchies. They dispense with the symmetry, pairing a bit of lopsided sneer with the raised brows and lifted cheeks typically associated with expressing enjoyment.

    “This facial expression has evolved to solve basic tasks of human living in social groups: Thanks, I like this. Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you. Hey, I’m in charge here,” Niedenthal says. “There are so many words people use to describe different smiles, but we see them as describing subtypes of a reward situation or an affiliative situation or a situation of negotiating hierarchy and having disdain for someone else.”

    With precise physical descriptions of smile types, researchers can better classify subtypes and study the use and effects of smiles in pivotal human interactions.

    “We now know which movements we should look for when we describe smiles from real life,” says Rychlowska. “We can treat smiles as a set of mathematical parameters, create models of people using different types of smiles, and use them in new studies.”

    Rychlowska and collaborators are already digging into the way affiliative and dominance smiles can shift the outcome of games and negotiations. Niedenthal is working with surgeons who repair and reconstruct facial bones and muscles.

    “They may have to make choices that will affect a patient’s expression for the rest of their life,” Niedenthal says. “It’s useful for them to know how different kinds of smiles are used in the world, and which muscles are involved in making them.”

    Better definitions of smile types should also help people navigate intercultural communication. Previous research has shown Niedenthal that while the types of smiles used vary from country to country, there is plenty of variation in how often they are used.

    “Americans smile so much that people from other countries are taught to smile more when they interact with us,” she says. “The problem is, they’re almost always taught one kind of smile, and that can cause confusion. “Simply teaching people about the existence of different types of ‘true’ smiles can help people pay more attention and avoid some of those misunderstandings.”


  4. Study links aspect of neuroticism to lower mortality

    August 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    Data from a longitudinal study of over 500,000 people in the United Kingdom indicate that having higher levels of the personality trait neuroticism may reduce the risk of death for individuals who report being in fair or poor health. The research, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, further revealed that a specific aspect of neuroticism related to worry and feelings of vulnerability was associated with lower mortality, regardless of self-reported health.

    “Our findings are important because they suggest that being high in neuroticism may sometimes have a protective effect, perhaps by making people more vigilant about their health,” says lead researcher Catharine R. Gale of the University of Edinburgh and University of Southampton.

    By definition, people with high levels of neuroticism are more likely to experience negative emotions — including irritability, frustration, nervousness, worry, and guilt — compared with their peers who have lower levels of neuroticism. Studies investigating links between neuroticism and mortality have produced inconsistent results, with some showing higher risk of death and others showing no relationship or even lower risk of death.

    Drawing from existing evidence, Gale and colleagues hypothesized that the relationship between neuroticism and risk of death may depend on how people rate their health.

    The researchers examined UK Biobank data collected from 502,655 people ages 37 to 73. Participants completed a validated personality assessment measuring neuroticism and indicated whether they thought they were in excellent, good, fair, or poor health overall. The data also included information on participants’ health behaviors (e.g., smoking, physical activity), physical health (e.g., body mass index, blood pressure), cognitive function, and medical diagnoses (e.g., heart problems, diabetes, cancer).

    Examining death certificates from the National Health Service Central Registry, the researchers found that a total of 4,497 participants had died in the follow-up period (which was about 6.25 years, on average). In general, the data showed that mortality was slightly higher among participants with higher levels of neuroticism. However, when Gale and colleagues adjusted for participants’ self-rated health, they found that the direction of the relationship reversed, with higher neuroticism being linked with slightly lowerrisk of death from all causes and from cancer.

    “When we explored this further, we found that this protective effect was only present in people who rated their health as fair or poor,” explains Gale. “We also found that people who scored highly on one aspect of neuroticism related to worry and vulnerability had a reduced risk of death regardless of how they rated their health.”

    Intriguingly, these relationships did not seem to vary according to participants’ health behaviors or medical diagnoses at the time they completed the neuroticism questionnaire, a finding which surprised the researchers.

    “Health behaviors such as smoking, exercise, diet and alcohol consumption did not explain any part of the link between high scores on the worry/vulnerability facet and mortality risk. We had thought that greater worry or vulnerability might lead people to behave in a healthier way and hence lower their risk of death, but that was not the case,” Gale says.

    Following on these findings, Gale and colleagues plan to further investigate the different facets of neuroticism to understand why worry and vulnerability may have specific protective effects.


  5. Study links rude customers to workers’ shopping binges

    August 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    Service workers who face verbal abuse from customers during the workday are more likely to go on unnecessary shopping sprees in the evening, indicates new research co-authored by a Michigan State University business expert.

    The study of 94 call-center workers at a large bank in China found that customer mistreatment (e.g., customers who yelled, argued, swore, etc.) put the employees in a bad mood after work. This, in turn, led to damaging thoughts (ruminating about the mistreatment) and behaviors (impulse shopping).

    “Thus, stress from customers spills over to spoil people’s experiences outside of work,” said Russell Johnson, MSU associate professor of management.

    The findings from Johnson and colleagues — who surveyed employees multiple times per day for 15 consecutive workdays — are published online in the Academy of Management Journal.

    The researchers also tested two interventions and found a potential solution to the problem.

    On days when workers who thought about a recent incident where they helped customers (a “recall of prosocial action intervention”) or thought about an interaction from the customer’s viewpoint (a “perspective-taking intervention”) before starting work, it reduced their perceptions of mistreatment, reduced their negative mood and led to less rumination and impulse shopping.

    Becoming more prosocial shifts attention away from the self and reduces impulsive and individualistic acts, according to the study.

    “These recall and perspective-taking interventions are quick and easy exercises that customer-service employees can do prior to beginning the workday to reduce the stress from rude customers,” Johnson said.


  6. Study links duration of estrogen exposure with increased vulnerability to depression

    by Ashley

    From the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) press release:

    It’s no secret that the risk of depression increases for women when their hormones are fluctuating. Especially vulnerable times include the menopause transition and onset of postmenopause. There’s also postpartum depression that can erupt shortly after childbirth. But why do some women feel blue while others seem to skate through these transitions? One answer is provided through study results being published online in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS).

    The article “Lifelong estradiol exposure and risk of depressive symptoms during the transition to menopause and postmenopause” includes data from a study of more than 1,300 regularly menstruating premenopausal women aged 42 to 52 years at study entry. The primary goal of the study was to understand why some women are more vulnerable to depression, even though all women experience hormone fluctuations.

    Previous studies have suggested a role for reproductive hormones in causing an increased susceptibility to depression. This study focused largely on the effect of estradiol, the predominant estrogen present during the reproductive years. Among other things, estradiol modulates the synthesis, availability, and metabolism of serotonin, a key neurotransmitter in depression. Whereas fluctuations of estradiol during the menopause transition are universal, the duration of exposure to estradiol throughout the adult years varies widely among women.

    A key finding of this study was that longer duration of estrogen exposure from the start of menstruation until the onset of menopause was significantly associated with a reduced risk of depression during the transition to menopause and for up to 10 years postmenopause. Also noteworthy was that longer duration of birth control use was associated with a decreased risk of depression, but the number of pregnancies or incidence of breastfeeding had no association.

    “Women are more vulnerable to depressive symptoms during and after the menopause transition because of fluctuating hormone changes,” says Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, executive director of NAMS. “This study additionally found a higher risk for depression in those with earlier menopause, fewer menstrual cycles over lifespan, or more frequent hot flashes. Women and their providers need to recognize symptoms of depression such as mood changes, loss of pleasure, changes in weight or sleep, fatigue, feeling worthless, being unable to make decisions, or feeling persistently sad and take appropriate action.”


  7. Neural connections in emotional processing of olfactory stimuli in mice

    August 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Asociación RUVID press release:

    The Joint Unit of Functional Neuroanatomy of the universities of Valencia and Jaume I de Castelló has described for the first time the complete map of the neural connections of the anterior cortical nucleus of the amygdala, a key brain region for the emotional processing of olfactory stimuli of mice. The research has been published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology.

    Bernardita Cádiz, María Abellán, Cecília Pardo, Ferran Martínez and Enrique Lanuza form the research team that has characterized the nervous circuit of the anterior cortical nucleus of the amygdala, partially unknown until now. The work describes the relationship between this nucleus and the other structures from which it receives information, as well as the areas of the brain to which it sends information.

    Enrique Lanuza, researcher at the Department of Cell Biology, Functional Biology and Physical Anthropology at the University of València, emphasizes that olfactory information has an intrinsic emotional value. “This work shows that this information reaches directly into the anterior cortical nucleus of the amygdala, which is directly interconnected with areas that process pheromonal information (which plays a key role in rodents’ sexual behaviour) and also with nuclei related to defensive and aggressive behaviour,” says the expert.

    In addition, the member of the Joint Unit of Functional Neuroanatomy points out that this olfactory nucleus of the amygdala is connected with regions that have been shown to be involved in Pavlovian learning, that is, to associate a neutral stimulus with a reward or a negative experience.

    “Although experiments have been performed on mice, these areas of the brain are evolutionarily highly conserved, and it is therefore reasonable to expect an important similarity with the human brain,” explains Lanuza. In addition, “smells are particularly evocative stimuli, and often very pleasant or unpleasant, so that we avoid being in places where it smells bad. Thus, to smell good is a good social letter of presentation,” says the lecturer of the Faculty of Biological Sciences of the University of València.

    The experiment was carried out with 15 female mice Mus musculus, the species of this most common rodent. The team has performed intracerebral injection of tracers (inert molecules), detectable by the emission of fluorescent light or by their chemical characteristics. In this way, thanks to the tracing of these molecules, the research team has observed the connections of this key structure in the processing of the emotional value of odours.


  8. Study suggests arts-based groups benefit individuals with mental health conditions

    August 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Wiley press release:

    A new study found that participation in arts-based groups — such as those that involve choir singing and creative writing — benefits the emotions of both healthy adults and those experiencing mental health conditions.

    In the study, participants reported a significant increase in positive emotions and a decrease in negative emotions during the arts-based activity compared with other times during the day. The influence on positive emotions was short-lived while the effect on negative emotions lasted until evening.

    Adults with chronic mental health conditions were equally able to derive emotional benefits as healthy adults. Furthermore, the participants described numerous ways in which their participation in the arts-based groups enhanced their individual and interpersonal emotion regulation.

    People with chronic mental health conditions tend to experience difficulties with emotion perception and regulation, which can have a big impact on their social relationships. These symptoms are not well treated with medication or psychotherapy,” said Dr. Genevieve Dingle, corresponding author of the British Journal of Clinical Psychology study. “The findings of this study are exciting because they clearly show the potential for participation in arts-based groups to influence emotions and emotion regulation in positive ways.”


  9. Study suggests low-dose anxiolytics can increase social competitiveness

    by Ashley

    From the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne press release:

    Psychologists speak of anxiety in two forms: “state” anxiety, which refers to anxiety arising from a particular situation; and “trait” anxiety, which refers to anxiety as part of a person’s overall personality. Studies have shown that high trait anxiety can seriously hamper a person’s ability to compete in a social context, thus putting “highly anxious” individuals in a circle of social disadvantage and more anxiety. Now EPFL scientists have shown that low doses of anxiolytic drugs — such as diazepam (Valium) — can ameliorate this effect by increasing the activity of mitochondria in the neurons of a brain pathway associated with motivation and reward. The work is published in Molecular Psychiatry.

    Anxiety and anxiolytics

    Some people tend to be relaxed while others are perpetually worried and tense. The difference is what psychologists call “trait anxiety,” and studies have shown that can have significant consequences on social life. Specifically, trait anxiety can undermine a person’s confidence in competing for social standing, making them feel overlooked and rejected: a condition psychologists call “social subordination.”

    Previous studies have suggested anxiolytic drugs — for example the benzodiazepines, which include diazepam — could perhaps help relieve anxiety-related social subordination, but the evidence has been scarce, and the idea was virtually dismissed by the scientific community.

    Anxiolytics unshackle mitochondria

    The lab of Carmen Sandi at EPFL, which has long history of research in trait anxiety, now shows that low doses of diazepam helps high-anxious rats overcome their social competition disadvantage. The scientists also found that it helped medium-anxious rats increase their ability to compete socially. On the other hand, low-dose diazepam did not help low-anxious rats increase their already higher social competitiveness.

    Wanting to connect this behavioral change to neuroscience, the researchers also looked at the neural circuits it involves. Specifically, they focused on two regions of the brain: First, the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which is one of the brain regions where diazepam is known to act. Second, the nucleus accumbens, which receives input from the VTA, and which the lab has previously shown to be heavily involved in trait anxiety and social competitiveness. Both regions are known to be involved the processing of motivation and reward.

    The scientists showed that diazepam increases the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine from VTA neurons to the nucleus accumbens. The increased dopamine acts on specialized receptors on the nucleus accumbens neurons (D1 dopaminergic receptors), and activates them. These in turn trigger a biochemical cascade that increases the activity and energy output of the neurons’ mitochondria — the cell’s powerhouses.

    Specifically, the mitochondria increase their “respiration,” which is the set of metabolic reactions that break down glucose and turn it into ATP, the cell’s energy molecule. In short, diazepam increases ATP in the neurons of the nucleus accumbens, and this ultimately enhances the individual’s ability to compete socially.

    The work establishes the role of anxiolytics in combating social subordination and, more critically, shows that mitochondrial function is a promising target for drug treatment of anxiety-related social dysfunctions.

    “Using a pharmacological approach, we could reveal here key neural mechanisms whereby individuals can rapidly and transiently experience changes in their self-confidence and competitive capacities,” says Carmen Sandi. “However, similar changes in mitochondrial function could also be achieved through behavior-training programs or nutritional interventions.” Her group is already researching effective, non-pharmacological interventions that target the same mechanisms in the brain to ameliorate behavioral dysfunctions related to trait anxiety.


  10. New study of brain circuits finds key links to symptoms of depression

    August 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of California – San Diego press release:

    University of California San Diego scientists have linked specific wiring in the brain to distinct behavioral symptoms of depression.

    In a study published in the journal Cell, researchers in UC San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences found brain circuits tied to feelings of despair and helplessness and were able to alleviate and even reverse such symptoms in mice studies.

    “We took an approach of studying depression in the sense that different brain areas and circuits of the brain might mediate or contribute to very discrete aspects of depression,” said study first-author Daniel Knowland, a UC San Diego graduate student. “For example, brain area A might contribute to loss of appetite, brain area B to social withdrawal and so forth.”

    Senior author Byungkook Lim, an assistant professor in the Neurobiology Section, said the results require much more study and evaluation to be applied to humans with depression, but the new research in animal models provides solid grounding.

    “This is one of the first studies providing clear evidence showing that different brain circuitry is involved in different types of depressive behavior with specific symptoms,” said Lim. “Each area of the brain is different with distinct cell types and connectivity, so if we can confirm that one area of circuitry is more involved in a particular symptom than another, we may eventually be able to treat a depression patient more efficiently than treating everyone the same way.”

    The researchers employed several tools to track brain pathways and specific areas of neurons involved in specific behaviors, including imaging techniques and social strategy behavioral models. Two populations of neurons were identified in the brain’s ventral pallidum region (part of the basal ganglia) as key to underlying depressive behavior.

    The new study found that specifically modifying pathways in these two areas in a mouse displaying depression led to improved behavioral changes similar to those of a healthy mouse. More importantly, this study provides strong insight to understanding the interaction between several brain areas in depression. Previous studies have mainly focused on the role of certain brain areas in isolation. Researchers in the new study were able to examine connections across multiple regions and how one impacted the other.