1. Study examines reasons for eye contact difficulties in autism

    June 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Massachusetts General Hospital press release:

    Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often find it difficult to look others in the eyes. This avoidance has typically been interpreted as a sign of social and personal indifference, but reports from people with autism suggests otherwise. Many say that looking others in the eye is uncomfortable or stressful for them — some will even say that “it burns” — all of which points to a neurological cause. Now, a team of investigators based at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital has shed light on the brain mechanisms involved in this behavior. They reported their findings in a Scientific Reports paper published online this month.

    “The findings demonstrate that, contrary to what has been thought, the apparent lack of interpersonal interest among people with autism is not due to a lack of concern,” says Nouchine Hadjikhani, MD, PhD, director of neurolimbic research in the Martinos Center and corresponding author of the new study. “Rather, our results show that this behavior is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from overactivation in a particular part of the brain.”

    The key to this research lies in the brain’s subcortical system, which is responsible for the natural orientation toward faces seen in newborns and is important later for emotion perception. The subcortical system can be specifically activated by eye contact, and previous work by Hadjikhani and colleagues revealed that, among those with autism, it was oversensitive to effects elicited by direct gaze and emotional expression. In the present study, she took that observation further, asking what happens when those with autism are compelled to look in the eyes of faces conveying different emotions.

    Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Hadjikhani and colleagues measured differences in activation within the face-processing components of the subcortical system in people with autism and in control participants as they viewed faces either freely or when constrained to viewing the eye-region. While activation of these structures was similar for both groups exhibited during free viewing, overactivation was observed in participants with autism when concentrating on the eye-region. This was especially true with fearful faces, though similar effects were observed when viewing happy, angry and neutral faces.

    The findings of the study support the hypothesis of an imbalance between the brain’s excitatory and inhibitory signaling networks in autism — excitatory refers to neurotransmitters that stimulate the brain, while inhibitory refers to those that calm it and provide equilibrium. Such an imbalance, likely the result of diverse genetic and environmental causes, can strengthen excitatory signaling in the subcortical circuitry involved in face perception. This in turn can result in an abnormal reaction to eye contact, an aversion to direct gaze and consequently abnormal development of the social brain.

    In revealing the underlying reasons for eye-avoidance, the study also suggests more effective ways of engaging individuals with autism. “The findings indicate that forcing children with autism to look into someone’s eyes in behavioral therapy may create a lot of anxiety for them,” says Hadjikhani, an associate professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School. “An approach involving slow habituation to eye contact may help them overcome this overreaction and be able to handle eye contact in the long run, thereby avoiding the cascading effects that this eye-avoidance has on the development of the social brain.”

    The researchers are already planning to follow up the research. Hadjikhani is now seeking funding for a study that will use magnetoencephalography (MEG) together with eye-tracking and other behavioral tests to probe more deeply the relationship between the subcortical system and eye contact avoidance in autism.


  2. Study suggests emphasizing individual solutions to big issues can reduce support for government efforts

    June 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Stanford University press release:

    Following the shutdown of the Fukushima power plant, which endured one of the worst nuclear accidents in history in 2011 due to a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami, Japan began a national initiative that encouraged saving electricity. This created an opportunity for Seth Werfel, a graduate student in political science at Stanford University, to investigate how recognition of individual efforts to improve energy usage might affect support for government-based solutions.

    He found that the more people said they curbed energy use on their own, the less they supported a tax increase on carbon emissions.

    “At first, I thought this result was counterintuitive because you’d expect people who took those actions to support government action as well,” said Werfel, whose work was published in Nature Climate Change. “But it is intuitive, just not obvious. When the surveys made people feel like they’d done enough, they said that the government shouldn’t make them do more.”

    Although his study was focused on an environmental issue, Werfel said other research suggests this reaction could be highly pervasive, affecting many other issues. He also found that the loss of support for government actions among the people who reported their personal efforts occurred regardless of political ideology.

    How surveys changed support

    Taking advantage of the energy-saving initiative, Werfel surveyed about 12,000 people in Japan. All surveys included a question about the extent to which people supported a government tax increase on carbon emissions. Half of the surveys contained a checklist that respondents used to indicate energy-saving actions they performed. On average, people who received the checklist surveys were about 13 percent less likely to support the government tax than people who did not receive a checklist.

    People who performed the checklist tasks also indicated on the accompanying survey that they felt that individual actions were more important than those of the government for achieving energy sustainability, and that conserving energy and protecting the environment shouldn’t be a top national priority.

    Werfel then sent checklist surveys to about 200 respondents who had been in non-checklist groups. Compared to how they responded in the initial, non-checklist survey, the respondents who checked the most boxes in the list of energy-saving actions in this second survey exhibited the greatest increase in their opposition to government actions. Werfel said this seems to indicate that people who perform more of these types of actions are more likely to see individual contributions as sufficient progress toward energy-saving goals.

    Additional surveys showed that a checklist containing only one very easy individual action did not affect people’s support of the carbon tax. However, people were 15 percent less likely to support the tax if they checked a box stating that they thought recycling was important — an effect that was largest among people who said they cared most about the environment. Werfel stressed that this, as with all of these results, should lead people to not assume anything about the behavior of any one person.

    “It would be way too strong to say these findings apply to someone who spends their life being environmentally conscious and advocating for government support of pro-environment initiatives,” he said.

    Werfel also tested whether making people feel morally good about themselves made them more likely to oppose government action, but the results of that survey were inconclusive.

    Striking a balance between pride and complacency

    Werfel said he believes this phenomenon likely impacts issues beyond environmentalism, such as disease prevention, economic inequality and homelessness, a hypothesis he is currently investigating. Given the evidence so far, Werfel cautions that we should be more aware about the potential downsides of celebrating every individual and private sector contribution we see as benefitting the greater good.

    “Sometimes there’s a danger to thinking you’ve done enough,” said Werfel. “We spend a lot of time encouraging people to do these things at home — to care about them and announce that they’ve done them — and there could be some backfire effect.”


  3. Research shows how faces guide, and reflect, our social lives

    June 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    For most of us, faces provide untold amounts of information about the people in our world. We use faces to identify someone as a friend or stranger, as approachable or hostile, as a member of our group or an outsider. We make judgments about others’ personality traits, such as their trustworthiness, based on our perceptions of their faces. And we typically make all of these determinations without ever being consciously aware that we’re doing it. There is no question: How we perceive faces plays a central role in our social lives.

    A special issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, brings together innovative research and theory in psychological science, computer science, neuroscience, and related fields, illuminating the myriad ways in which face perception infuses how we think and behave.

    In this issue, “researchers from diverse areas within the psychological sciences illustrate various cognitive processes and social consequences, extending from face perception’s basic foundations in recognition, human development, and social and economic behavior, through individual and cultural variation in face processing, to the cutting-edge application of tools in computer science,” writes psychological scientist Nicholas O. Rule of the University of Toronto in his introduction to the special issue.

    The special issue delves into the mechanisms that underlie face perception, exploring the adaptive functions that likely contribute to recognizing faces and facial expressions, the origins and developmental trajectory of face recognition across different people, and the reasons why we sometimes make errors when it comes to recognizing certain faces.

    The issue also shows how we use information from faces to make judgments about other people, including forming quick first impressions and determining the social groups they belong to, whether they possess certain leadership qualities, and the likelihood that they’ll cooperate or act selfishly.

    Articles in the issue illustrate how early experiences can shape face perception, leading to cultural differences in how we attend to facial features and exposure-related differences in how we process faces of different races.

    The articles also show how biases in how we recognize emotions in faces can contribute to the onset and maintenance of mood disorders like depression and aggression. Building computational models that accurately describe the processes involved in face perception could eventually help clinicians in defining, diagnosing, and treating these kinds of disorders.

    Finally, the issue explores how face perception ultimately guides our behavior towards others, influencing whether we decide to engage with someone in prosocial ways and even whether we might dehumanize and harm someone.

    “Together, this collection of brief and accessible reviews will help readers to cultivate an understanding of how humans create and extract meaning from the face, justifying why it maintains such a high priority in perception, cognition, and behavior,” Rule writes.


  4. Study looks at psychological effect of washing one’s hands

    June 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management press release:

    Handwipes aren’t just for germs anymore. Their uses may extend to more flexible thinking and reorienting one’s priorities.

    A pair of researchers at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management has found the physicality of cleaning one’s hands acts to shift goal pursuit, making prior goals less important and subsequent goals more important.

    The researchers’ four experiments each began by bringing participants’ attention to particular goals through word games or a short survey, a process called “priming.” The participants were then asked to either merely evaluate or actually use a handwipe. Those who were asked to use the wipe became less likely to think of the previously primed goal, less likely to make behavioral choices consistent with it, and less likely to find it important. Furthermore, their focus was more easily reoriented towards a subsequently primed goal.

    “For people who were primed with a health goal, for example, using the handwipe reduced their subsequent tendency to behave in a healthy manner — they were more likely to choose a chocolate bar over a granola bar,” says Ping Dong, a PhD student in marketing who conducted the research with Spike W. S. Lee, an assistant professor of marketing.

    Previous work has already shown that physical cleansing reduces the impact of previous psychological experiences, such as guilt arising from immoral behaviour. The current research unpacks the underlying mental process: cleansing embodies a psychological procedure of separation. Wiping away dirt serves as a physical proxy for mentally separating ideas that linger from previous experience, hence preparing a “clean slate” for focusing on new ones.

    This research examined cleansing’s short-term rather than long-term impact on goal pursuit, points out Ms. Dong, who will join the faculty at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management later this year. While it may be premature to suggest that people intent on achieving goals should significantly alter their personal hygiene routines, the findings do suggest that when it comes to finding practical tricks for redirecting one’s thinking away from old fruitless pursuits towards new and better ones, an antiseptic wipe may come in handy.

    The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.


  5. Study suggests leaders who change stance on moral position seen as hypocritical, less effective

    June 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Psychological Association press release:

    When leaders use a moral argument rather than a pragmatic one as the basis for a position, they may be judged harshly if they change that position later. They are perceived as hypocrites, less effective and less worthy of future support, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

    “Leaders may choose to take moral stances, believing that this will improve audiences’ perceptions. And it does, initially. But all people, even leaders, have to change their minds sometimes,” said lead author Tamar Kreps, PhD, of the University of Utah. “Our research shows that leaders who change their moral minds are seen as more hypocritical, and not as courageous or flexible, compared with those whose initial view was based on a pragmatic argument. Due to this perception of hypocrisy, they are also seen as less effective and less worthy of support.”

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

    In the study, Kreps and her colleagues conducted a series of 15 experiments online involving more than 5,500 participants from the United States ranging in age from 18 to 77. In each experiment, participants learned about political or business leaders who had changed their opinion on an issue. Some participants were informed that the leaders’ initial positions were based on a moral stance. Others were told the position was based on a pragmatic argument (e.g., it was good for the economy). Across the studies, participants rated the leader who changed his or her mind on the moral stance as more hypocritical and, in most instances, less effective and worthy of their support than leaders whose initial stance was pragmatic.

    What surprised the researchers the most was how difficult it was to eliminate the effect, according to Kreps. “In different studies, we tried to test various factors we thought might weaken the effect. For example, what if the leader used the same moral value in the later view as in the earlier view? What if the leader did not rely on popular support and therefore would have no reason to pander? What about participants who believed in moral relativism, the view that there is no objective reality in the first place? None of those things made a difference — initially moral mind-changers consistently seemed more hypocritical,” she said.

    Kreps believes the findings suggest that people think that breaking moral commitments is not only difficult, but also wrong. “All in all, these results paint a glum picture for initially moral leaders. When leaders take a moral position, there appears to be little they can do to avoid being perceived as hypocritical should they find they later have to change their minds,” said Kreps.

    For leaders who insist on moral arguments, there is some good news if they have to change their minds later, according to Kreps. While in all cases, leaders who changed position on a moral stance were seen as more hypocritical, if leaders framed the change as a result of a personally transformative experience or out of their control due to external forces, they were not seen as less effective or unworthy of support.

    “We know that moral beliefs do tend to stay more constant over time. So, leaders should take moral stances only if they have the underlying beliefs to back up those stances,” said Kreps. “Taking an inauthentic moral view to try to pander to a moralizing audience could backfire, if a leader needs to change that view later on.”


  6. Smiling during victory could hurt future chances of cooperation

    June 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Southern California press release:

    Smile and the whole world smiles with you? Well, not necessarily.

    In a winning scenario, smiling can decrease your odds of success against the same opponent in subsequent matches, according to new research presented by the USC Institute for Creative Technologies and sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

    People who smiled during victory increased the odds of their opponent acting aggressively to steal a pot of money rather than share it in future gameplay, according to a paper presented in May at the International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems by USC ICT research assistant Rens Hoegen, USC ICT research programmer Giota Stratou and Jonathan Gratch, director of virtual humans research at USC ICT and a professor of computer science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

    Conversely, researchers found smiling during a loss tended to help the odds of success in the game going forward.

    The study is in line with previous research published by senior author Gratch, whose main interest lies both in how people express these tells — an unconscious action that betrays deception — and using this data to create artificial intelligence to discern and even express these same emotional cues as a person.

    “We think that emotion is the enemy of reason. But the truth is that emotion is our way of assigning value to things,” said Gratch. “Without it, we’d be faced with limitless choices.”

    Gratch and other ICT researchers hope to imbue virtual humans and even robots with value-based assessment using emotional pattern recognition and reaction to form what might be called intuition or gut level decision-making.

    Grin and bear it, but don’t gloat

    Part of this research is accounting for the kind of emotion-based reasoning that might lead someone to act against their rational self-interest for the short-term satisfaction of “payback” — that is, cutting off their nose to spite their opponent’s smiling face.

    For the AAMAS study, 370 participants played a version of the British television game show Golden Balls, where participants decide to “split” or “steal” a pot of money. If both participants choose “split,” they do just that — split the pot. If one player chooses to split with the other stealing, the latter gets the whole thing. If both choose to steal, neither wins.

    Each participant was paid $30, with participants receiving additional tickets for a $100 lottery generated by their total number of successful “steals” and “splits.”

    As participants played the game against each other on video Skype, reactions were recorded and encoded using emotion-tracking software that captures muscle movements in the face including cheek, lip and chin raises, dimples, and the compression and separation of lips.

    As for the motivations of the players, researchers hypothesize that successful, smiling stealers open themselves to future punishment by the loser, while smiling during such a loss is seen as a gesture toward cooperation and a feeling of mutual success.

    Teaching machines the power of a smile

    In a similar study Gratch co-authored with ICT senior research associate Gale Lucas and colleagues in 2016, participants were shown to often misread honesty when negotiating with each other because reassuring cues like head movement, positive language and even smiling signal honesty, but actually more frequently represent dishonest action and behaviors.

    Gratch has worked closely with the USC Marshall School of Business over the last several years to incorporate virtual humans that can understand these types of nuances into the study of negotiation. The Institute for Creative Technologies also works with agencies like the U.S. Army to use virtual humans in negotiation scenarios.

    From Arthur Samuel’s checkers-playing AI of the 1950s and 1960s to the Joshua computer’s tic-tac-toe game of mutually assured destruction in the 1983 movie WarGames, artificial intelligence has been depicted as especially well-suited to beating people at their own, somewhat linear and strategy-based games.

    IBM’s Deep Blue also famously and successfully battled chess master Garry Kasparov in the 1990s, and the computer system Watson did the same with its human opponents on Jeopardy! in 2011.

    In the last year alone, different AIs have beaten top players in both the ancient game of Go and professional poker, the latter relying on bluffing, tells and accurate emotional readings of the opponent.


  7. Study suggests a well-matched name and face can win a politician more votes

    by Ashley

    From the Springer press release:

    People tend to associate round names such as “Bob” and “Lou” with round-faced individuals, and they have an inherent preference for names and faces that go well together. This is according to David Barton and Jamin Halberstadt of the University of Otago in New Zealand. In the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, published by Springer, they investigated the so-called “bouba/kiki effect.” It refers to people’s tendency to associate rounded objects with names that require rounding of the mouth to pronounce.

    In a series of studies Barton and Halberstadt tested whether people’s names are judged more suitable when they are congruent in shape with the people they denote. They also investigated whether people whose names match their faces will be judged more positively than people with incongruent names.

    In the first experiment, participants ranked which of six suggested names went best with twenty overly exaggerated round or angular male caricatured faces. The participants consistently matched nine of the ten round faces, and eight of the ten angular faces with so-called round (George, Lou) and angular (Pete, Kirk) names, respectively. In a second experiment, using unmanipulated photographs of real male faces, participants assigned shape-congruent names to 14 out of 16 round faces, and 15 out of 16 angular faces. Further studies revealed that participants like another person more when they learn that the person has a name that matches their face, and participants’ estimations of others, in fact, diminishes if this is not the case.

    To put these findings into practice, Barton and Halberstadt turned to politics. The researchers computed “matching scores” for 158 candidates for the United States Senate, based on independent ratings of the roundness of each candidate’s face and name. They found that well-named candidates (those whose faces matched their names) had an advantage. Candidates earned on average 10 more percentage points in their elections when their names fit their faces very well, versus very poorly.

    “Those with congruent names earned a greater proportion of votes than those with incongruent names,” explains Barton. “The fact that candidates with extremely well-fitting names won their seats by a larger margin — 10 points- than is obtained in most American presidential races suggests the provocative idea that the relation between perceptual and bodily experience could be a potent source of bias in some circumstances.”

    “Overall, our results tell a consistent story,” Halberstadt explains. “People’s names, like shape names, are not entirely arbitrary labels. Face shapes produce expectations about the names that should denote them, and violations of those expectations carry affective implications, which in turn feed into more complex social judgments, including voting decisions.”


  8. Sequential options prompt future thinking, boost patience

    June 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    When faced with a tempting choice, it can be hard to stop and think through the potential consequences, but new research suggests that framing the choice as a sequence of events can help us exercise patience by prompting us to imagine the future. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

    “People often have difficulty forgoing immediate temptations, like hitting the snooze button on the alarm, for the sake of later benefits. One possible reason is that people tend to consider the immediate consequences of a particular action, like getting a few more minutes of sleep, more than the later ones, like not having time for breakfast,” explains Adrianna Jenkins of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

    “Past work has shown that a subtle change in how choices are framed can increase people’s patience. We found evidence that this change affects patience by increasing imagination and its role in decision-making,” she adds.

    A considerable amount of research has shown that people who are able to forego immediate temptations in lieu of future rewards experience all sorts of benefits later on, including greater physical, psychological, and financial well-being. But the typical explanation for this ability — using willpower to tamp down our immediate desires — does not always seem to underlie increases in patience. For example, research on framing effects indicates that people’s ability to exercise patience can differ based on small differences on how current and future choices are presented, even without changes in willpower.

    Jenkins and UC Berkeley colleague Ming Hsu wondered whether reframing decisions might increase people’s reliance on a second possible route to patience: imagination.

    In one experiment, Jenkins and Hsu presented 122 participants with a series of binary choices and the participants had to choose which option they preferred. In some cases, the options were framed as independent — for example, they could choose between receiving $15 tomorrow or $20 in 30 days. In other cases, however, the options were framed as sequential — that is, receive $15 tomorrow and $0 in 30 days versus receive $0 tomorrow and $20 in 30 days.

    Replicating past research, people were more likely to exercise patience when the options were framed as a sequence relative to when they were framed as independent. Importantly, the options were financially equivalent regardless of how they were framed.

    In a second online experiment, 203 participants were randomly assigned to receive either an independently framed choice or a sequentially framed choice with higher stakes: $100 tomorrow or $120 in 30 days. This time, Jenkins and Hsu also measured participants’ imagination.

    In the second experiment, people were more likely to imagine the potential outcomes of the options when choices were framed as sequences. This increased reliance on imagination was apparent in both participants’ self-reports and also in the notes they took about what they were thinking while making their decision.

    In a third experiment, the researchers looked at brain imaging data from another group of participants making the same kinds of decisions. They found that when options were framed as a sequence, choosing the patient option was linked to activity in brain regions associated with imagination. When the options were framed as independent, choosing the patient option was more strongly linked with activity in brain areas associated with willpower.

    These findings, the researchers say, provide evidence that reframing options as a sequence influenced the route by which participants exercised patience.

    “Our findings suggest that imagination and willpower represent dissociable routes to patience,” says Jenkins. “Willpower might enable people to override impatient impulses after they’re formed, whereas imagining future consequences might affect the formation of the impulses themselves.”

    Imagining future consequences may be a particularly useful strategy, the researchers note, when circumstances are less than ideal — say, when you’re multitasking, distracted, stressed, or just tired — since is it possible for willpower to be compromised in these situations.

    So when your alarm clock rings tomorrow and you don’t feel like getting out of bed, try reframing your options. Instead of choosing between “get out of bed now” and “sleep 20 more minutes,” try thinking of your options more in terms of “get out of bed now and have time for breakfast” or “sleep 20 more minutes and have no time for breakfast.” It may just help you throw off the covers and get ahead on your day.


  9. Genes influence ability to read a person’s mind from their eyes

    by Ashley

    From the University of Cambridge press release:

    Our DNA influences our ability to read a person’s thoughts and emotions from looking at their eyes, suggests a new study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

    Twenty years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge developed a test of ‘cognitive empathy‘ called the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test (or the Eyes Test, for short). This revealed that people can rapidly interpret what another person is thinking or feeling from looking at their eyes alone. It also showed that some of us are better at this than others, and that women on average score better on this test than men.

    Now, the same team, working with the genetics company 23andMe along with scientists from France, Australia and the Netherlands, report results from a new study of performance on this test in 89,000 people across the world. The majority of these were 23andMe customers who consented to participate in research. The results confirmed that women on average do indeed score better on this test.

    More importantly, the team confirmed that our genes influence performance on the Eyes Test, and went further to identify genetic variants on chromosome 3 in women that are associated with their ability to “read the mind in the eyes.”

    The study was led by Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student, and Professors Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, and Thomas Bourgeron, of the University Paris Diderot and the Institut Pasteur.

    Interestingly, performance on the Eyes Test in males was not associated with genes in this particular region of chromosome 3. The team also found the same pattern of results in an independent cohort of almost 1,500 people who were part of the Brisbane Longitudinal Twin Study, suggesting the genetic association in females is a reliable finding.

    The closest genes in this tiny stretch of chromosome 3 include LRRN1 (Leucine Rich Neuronal 1) which is highly active in a part of the human brain called the striatum, and which has been shown using brain scanning to play a role in cognitive empathy. Consistent with this, genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the volume of the striatum in humans, a finding that needs to be investigated further.

    Previous studies have found that people with autism and anorexia tend to score lower on the Eyes Test. The team found that genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the risk for anorexia, but not autism. They speculate that this may be because autism involves both social and non-social traits, and this test only measures a social trait.

    Varun Warrier says: “This is the largest ever study of this test of cognitive empathy in the world. This is also the first study to attempt to correlate performance on this test with variation in the human genome. This is an important step forward for the field of social neuroscience and adds one more piece to the puzzle of what may cause variation in cognitive empathy.”

    Professor Bourgeron adds: “This new study demonstrates that empathy is partly genetic, but we should not lose sight of other important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience.”

    Professor Baron-Cohen says: “We are excited by this new discovery, and are now testing if the results replicate, and exploring precisely what these genetic variants do in the brain, to give rise to individual differences in cognitive empathy. This new study takes us one step closer in understanding such variation in the population.”


  10. Uncovering why playing a musical instrument can protect brain health

    June 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care press release:

    A recent study conducted at Baycrest Health Sciences has uncovered a crucial piece into why playing a musical instrument can help older adults retain their listening skills and ward off age-related cognitive declines. This finding could lead to the development of brain rehabilitation interventions through musical training.

    The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience on May 24, found that learning to play a sound on a musical instrument alters the brain waves in a way that improves a person’s listening and hearing skills over a short time frame. This change in brain activity demonstrates the brain’s ability to rewire itself and compensate for injuries or diseases that may hamper a person’s capacity to perform tasks.

    “Music has been known to have beneficial effects on the brain, but there has been limited understanding into what about music makes a difference,” says Dr. Bernhard Ross, senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and senior author on the study. “This is the first study demonstrating that learning the fine movement needed to reproduce a sound on an instrument changes the brain’s perception of sound in a way that is not seen when listening to music.”

    This finding supports Dr. Ross’ research using musical training to help stroke survivors rehabilitate motor movement in their upper bodies. Baycrest scientists have a history of breakthroughs into how a person’s musical background impacts the listening abilities and cognitive function as they age and they continue to explore how brain changes during aging impact hearing.

    The study involved 32 young, healthy adults who had normal hearing and no history of neurological or psychiatric disorders. The brain waves of participants were first recorded while they listened to bell-like sounds from a Tibetan singing bowl (a small bell struck with a wooden mallet to create sounds). After listening to the recording, half of the participants were provided the Tibetan singing bowl and asked to recreate the same sounds and rhythm by striking it and the other half recreated the sound by pressing a key on a computer keypad.

    “It has been hypothesized that the act of playing music requires many brain systems to work together, such as the hearing, motor and perception systems,” says Dr. Ross, who is also a medical biophysics professor at the University of Toronto. “This study was the first time we saw direct changes in the brain after one session, demonstrating that the action of creating music leads to a strong change in brain activity.”

    The study’s next steps involve analyzing recovery between stroke patients with musical training compared to physiotherapy and the impact of musical training on the brains of older adults.

    With additional funding, the study could explore developing musical training rehabilitation programs for other conditions that impact motor function, such as traumatic brain injury.

    Research for this study was conducted with support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which supported research staff and equipment.

    Dr. Ross’ work is setting the foundation to develop hearing aids of the future and cognitive training programs to maintain hearing health.