1. Study suggests music is an universal language

    February 17, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Cell Press press release:

    Every culture enjoys music and song, and those songs serve many different purposes: accompanying a dance, soothing an infant, or expressing love. Now, after analyzing recordings from all around the world, researchers reporting in Current Biology on January 25 show that vocal songs sharing one of those many functions tend to sound similar to one another, no matter which culture they come from. As a result, people listening to those songs in any one of 60 countries could make accurate inferences about them, even after hearing only a quick 14-second sampling.

    The findings are consistent with the existence of universal links between form and function in vocal music, the researchers say.

    “Despite the staggering diversity of music influenced by countless cultures and readily available to the modern listener, our shared human nature may underlie basic musical structures that transcend cultural differences,” says Samuel Mehr (@samuelmehr) at Harvard University.

    “We show that our shared psychology produces fundamental patterns in song that transcend our profound cultural differences,” adds co-first author of the study Manvir Singh, also at Harvard. “This suggests that our emotional and behavioral responses to aesthetic stimuli are remarkably similar across widely diverging populations.”

    Across the animal kingdom, there are links between form and function in vocalization. For instance, when a lion roars or an eagle screeches, it sounds hostile to naive human listeners. But it wasn’t clear whether the same concept held in human song.

    Many people believe that music is mostly shaped by culture, leading them to question the relation between form and function in music, Singh says. “We wanted to find out if that was the case or not.”

    In their first experiment, Mehr and Singh’s team asked 750 internet users in 60 countries to listen to brief, 14-second excerpts of songs. The songs were selected pseudo-randomly from 86 predominantly small-scale societies, including hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and subsistence farmers. Those songs also spanned a wide array of geographic areas designed to reflect a broad sampling of human cultures.

    After listening to each excerpt, participants answered six questions indicating their perceptions of the function of each song on a six-point scale. Those questions evaluated the degree to which listeners believed that each song was used (1) for dancing, (2) to soothe a baby, (3) to heal illness, (4) to express love for another person, (5) to mourn the dead, and (6) to tell a story. (In fact, none of the songs were used in mourning or to tell a story. Those answers were included to discourage listeners from an assumption that only four song types were actually present.)

    In total, participants listened to more than 26,000 excerpts and provided more than 150,000 ratings (six per song). The data show that, despite participants’ unfamiliarity with the societies represented, the random sampling of each excerpt, their very short duration, and the enormous diversity of this music, the ratings demonstrated accurate and cross-culturally reliable inferences about song functions on the basis of song forms alone.

    In a second, follow-up experiment designed to explore possible ways in which people made those determinations about song function, the researchers asked 1,000 internet users in the United States and India to rate the excerpts for three “contextual” features: (1) number of singers, (2) gender of singer(s), and (3) number of instruments. They also rated them for seven subjective musical features: (1) melodic complexity, (2) rhythmic complexity, (3) tempo, (4) steady beat, (5) arousal, (6) valence, and (7) pleasantness.

    An analysis of those data showed that there was some relationship between those various features and song function. But it wasn’t enough to explain the way people were able to so reliably detect a song’s function.

    Mehr and Singh say that one of the most intriguing findings relates to the relationship between lullabies and dance songs. “Not only were users best at identifying songs used for those functions, but their musical features seem to oppose each other in many ways,” Mehr says. Dance songs were generally faster, rhythmically and melodically complex, and perceived by participants as “happier” and “more exciting”; lullabies, on the other hand, were slower, rhythmically and melodically simple, and perceived as “sadder” and “less exciting.”

    The researchers say they are now conducting these tests in listeners who live in isolated, small-scale societies and have never heard music other than that of their own cultures. They are also further analyzing the music of many cultures to try to figure out how their particular features relate to function and whether those features themselves might be universal.


  2. Study suggests our trust in strangers is affected by their resemblance to previous acquaintances

    by Ashley

    From the New York University press release:

    Our trust in strangers is dependent on their resemblance to others we’ve previously known, finds a new study by a team of psychology researchers. Its results show that strangers resembling past individuals known to be trustworthy are trusted more; by contrast, those similar to others known to be untrustworthy are trusted less.

    The details of the research, conducted at New York University, are reported in the latest issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    “Our study reveals that strangers are distrusted even when they only minimally resemble someone previously associated with immoral behavior,” explains the work’s lead author, Oriel FeldmanHall, who led research as a post-doctoral fellow at NYU and who is now an assistant professor in Brown University’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences. “Like Pavlov’s dog, who, despite being conditioned on a single bell, continues to salivate to bells that have similar tones, we use information about a person’s moral character, in this case whether they can be trusted, as a basic Pavlovian learning mechanism in order to make judgments about strangers.”

    “We make decisions about a stranger’s reputation without any direct or explicit information about them based on their similarity to others we’ve encountered, even when we’re unaware of this resemblance,” adds Elizabeth Phelps, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the paper’s senior author. “This shows our brains deploy a learning mechanism in which moral information encoded from past experiences guides future choices.”

    Scientists have a better grasp on how social decision-making unfolds in repeated one-on-one interactions. Less clear, however, is how our brain functions in making these same decisions when interacting with strangers.

    To explore this, the researchers conducted a series of experiments centering on a trust game in which participants make a series of decisions about their partners’ trustworthiness — in this case, deciding whether to entrust their money with three different players who were represented by facial images.

    Here, the subjects knew that any money they invested would be multiplied four times and that the other player could then either share the money back with the subject (reciprocate) or keep the money for himself (defect). Each player was highly trustworthy (reciprocated 93 percent of the time), somewhat trustworthy (reciprocated 60 percent of the time), or not at all trustworthy (reciprocated 7 percent of the time).

    In a second task, the same subjects were asked to select new partners for another game. However, unbeknownst to the subjects, the face of each potential new partner was morphed, to varying degrees, with one of the three original players so the new partners bore some physical resemblance to the previous ones.

    Even though the subjects were not consciously aware that the strangers (i.e., the new partners) resembled those they previously encountered, subjects consistently preferred to play with strangers who resembled the original player they previously learned was trustworthy and avoided playing with strangers resembling the earlier untrustworthy player. Moreover, these decisions to trust or distrust strangers uncovered an interesting and sophisticated gradient: trust steadily increased the more the stranger looked like the trustworthy partner from the previous experiment and steadily decreased the more the stranger looked like the untrustworthy one.

    In a subsequent experiment, the scientists examined the brain activity of the subjects as they made these decisions. Here they found that when deciding whether or not the strangers could be trusted, the subjects’ brains tapped the same neurological regions that were involved when learning about the partner in the first task, including the amygdala — a region that plays a large role in emotional learning. The greater the similarity in neural activity between initially learning about an untrustworthy player and deciding to trust a stranger, the more subjects refused to trust the stranger.

    This finding points to the highly adaptive nature of the brain as it shows we make moral assessments of strangers drawn from previous learning experiences.

    The study was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Aging (AG 039283), part of the National Institutes of Health.


  3. Study suggests walking in groups can help keep exercise goals on track

    February 16, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Anglia Ruskin University press release:

    People may be more likely to stick to taking exercise if they walk in groups, according to a paper published in the International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care.

    The research, led by Anglia Ruskin University, also found that group walking plays a part in improved physical activity and better quality of life.

    The review analysed 18 studies of physically healthy adults walking in groups compared with walking alone or not at all and found that people who had undertaken group walking were more likely to have kept up the exercise by the end of the study, which was an average of six months later.

    The authors also found that in five of the seven studies that measured quality of life outcomes, those who walked in groups showed significantly improved scores compare with those who did not, while in the other two studies there was no significant difference.

    The World Health Organisation recommends that adults undertake 150 minutes of moderate aerobic physical activity per week. However, only 67% of men and 55% of women in the UK meet these guidelines. Dropout rates for exercise initiatives are also known to be high.

    Lead author Professor Catherine Meads, of Anglia Ruskin University, said: “Walking in groups is a safe and inexpensive intervention that can be delivered easily and successfully in the community.

    “At a time when we are being encouraged to meet physical activity guidelines, a large proportion of the public fail to do so. Our review found that people may be more likely to exercise if they have social support.

    Walking in groups tended to increase life satisfaction and may also improve social connectedness.”


  4. Study suggests emotional images sway people more than emotional words

    February 14, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Can your behavior be influenced by subtle, barely visible signals, such as an emotionally charged image briefly flashed on a TV screen or roadside billboard? It may sound like hysteria about covert advertising — but according to new research published in open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology, the answer is yes.

    Piotr Winkielman, of the University of California, San Diego, has been studying the effect for quite a while. In a previous study, Winkielman and colleagues reported that showing brief images of happy faces to thirsty people led them to drink more of a beverage immediately afterwards, whereas images of scowling faces led them to drink less. Remarkably, the participants were not aware of a change in their emotional state. In this new study, the researchers expanded the scope of their tests beyond faces to other images and words.

    “We wanted to compare two major kinds of emotional stimuli that people encounter in their life: words and pictures, including those of emotional faces and evocative images of objects,” says Winkielman. “We also tested if it matters whether these stimuli are presented very briefly or for a longer period of time.”

    The researchers asked undergraduates to classify objects, faces, or words on a computer screen. While showing a series of emotionally neutral images in quick succession, the researchers included brief flashes of faces, pictures or words that were either positive or negative. After the task, the researchers provided a soft drink and allowed the participants to drink as much as they liked.

    The first experiment compared the effect of emotive words, such as “panda” (positive) and “knife” (negative), with that of happy (positive) and angry (negative) facial expressions. The second compared the effect of emotive words with images of emotionally charged objects, such as a gun or a cute dog.

    As in previous studies, participants drank more after seeing happy faces than after seeing angry faces. Participants also drank more after seeing positive objects than after seeing negative objects. In contrast, positive words did not increase consumption.

    “We found that emotive images of objects altered the amount that participants drank, with ‘positive’ objects increasing consumption and ‘negative’ objects decreasing it,” says Winkielman. “But people were not swayed by emotional words, which were somehow powerless — even though the words were rated to be as emotive as the pictures.”

    Surprisingly, nearly invisible images — shown for only 10 milliseconds — had the same effect as clearly noticeable images shown for 200 milliseconds.

    “In our experiment, the duration of the emotional cue did not matter for its ability to influence consumption,” says Winkielman. “This echoes some previous studies, however we need stronger evidence to confidently claim that fleeting images work as well as more noticeable images in altering behavior.”

    Figuring out why emotive images are more powerful than emotive words is the researchers’ next task. They hypothesize that emotionally charged pictures may speak more directly to us than words, which can be nuanced and ambiguous, and may require more thought before they affect us.

    The results raise many questions: “We know from our other research that words in sentences are emotionally impactful, but why?” asks Winkielman. “Is it because they can conjure up images?”

    For now, at least, it appears that a single picture is worth more than a word. More than a thousand words? That’s yet to be discovered.


  5. Study suggests inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

    February 13, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Rutgers University press release:

    When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter — more than we think.

    Those are the findings of Rutgers University psychologists Louis Matzel and Bruno Sauce, based on an integrative review of recent studies on the nature of human intelligence. Their study is published in the December issue of the Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

    “Genetic influences don’t run the show, nor do environmental effects. It’s the genetic-environmental interplay that is the ringmaster,” said Matzel, a professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers-New Brunswick. Sauce is a graduate student in Rutgers’ School of Graduate Studies.

    The study, the researchers say, has significant implications for the way we educate children, whose inherited IQ can increase, especially during early childhood, with the right kind of stimulation and attention.

    “We educate children the hard way in this country,” Matzel said. “We go to impoverished high schools and try to remediate kids, which is a perfectly good thing to do. But it’s often too late; the time to reach those kids is when they start school, while their intelligence is most malleable.”

    Scientists measure the heritability of traits on a scale of 0.0 to 1.0. Eye color has a heritability score of .99, meaning that it’s highly genetic. Intelligence typically rates at .8, Matzel and Sauce said, which means that it, too, is very heritable. However, Matzel and Sauce believe people often underestimate the role of environment.

    “Through interactions and correlations with the environment, genetic influences can be expressed in wildly different ways, and environmental influences are much more powerful than many scientists believe,” Sauce said.

    The researchers said the heritability of IQ can be as low as .3 in young children, which leaves plenty of room for changes in intelligence. But school systems often ignore this opportunity, they believe, focusing on increasing rote knowledge at the expense of critical thinking. Intervention programs then often fail to create lasting changes to children’s environment.

    Consider children who take part in Head Start, the federal program that provides low-income children with comprehensive early childhood education, nutrition and parent-involvement services. Matzel said those children’s IQ scores increase significantly while they’re part of the program, but frequently regress after they leave it — a common criticism of these programs. That, he said, is because the stimulation and encouragement received in Head Start is missing when the child returns to their more restrictive environment.

    Or consider identical twins separated at birth. If their IQs are nearly identical, and they have equal opportunities, they will be equally smart as adults. However, if one is deprived of opportunities, their cognitive abilities will diverge, Matzel said. This highlights the important role that environmental opportunity plays in the establishment of an individual’s intelligence.

    While twins may have the same basic mental equipment with which to face the world, the twin raised in the better environment can thrive while his sibling is thwarted. “The environment is the critical tool that allows our genetic equipment to prosper,” Matzel said.


  6. Study suggests learning to make healthy choices can counter the effects of large portions

    February 11, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    People are often told that eating everything in moderation can help them lose weight, but it is better to choose healthier foods than to try to eat less, according to Penn State researchers.

    In a recent study, researchers measured how much participants ate when given meals that varied in portion size. Despite about one-third of participants having been trained in different strategies to manage food portions during a previous year-long weight loss trial, all participants ate more as portion sizes grew. Although the trained participants ate the same amount as the others, they tended to choose healthier foods and ended up consuming fewer calories overall.

    “The results show that choosing healthy, lower-calorie-dense foods was more effective and more sustainable than just trying to resist large portions of higher calorie options,” said Faris Zuraikat, graduate student. “If you choose high-calorie-dense foods but restrict the amount that you’re eating, portions will be too small, and you’re likely to get hungry.”

    Previous research has shown the power of the “portion size effect,” which is the tendency for people to eat more when larger portions are served and can result in people consuming more calories than they intended.

    The researchers designed an intervention to help people counteract this effect, in which participants were taught strategies to control food portions and eat healthier. Zuraikat said he and the other researchers wanted to see if this training was effective in helping people control portions.

    “We gathered a group of subjects who had extensive training on portion-control strategies to see if their response to increasing portion size of foods served at a meal differed from untrained individuals,” Zuraikat said. “We were also interested in whether those untrained individuals with overweight and obesity or normal weight differed in their response.”

    The researchers recruited three groups of women to participate in the study: 34 controls with overweight, 29 controls with normal weight, and 39 who had previously completed a one-year weight loss trial emphasizing portion-control strategies. All participants visited the lab once a week for four weeks. During each visit, the researchers provided the same foods but increased the portion size of the foods in a randomized order across weeks.

    Each meal consisted of foods with higher calorie density, like garlic bread, and lower calorie density, like salad. Foods were weighed before and after the meal to determine how much was eaten, and calorie intake was determined from these measures.

    The researchers found that when they were given larger portions, participants in all three groups ate more. For example, when the portion size was increased 75 percent, the average amount consumed went up 27 percent.

    However, the participants who received training consumed fewer calories overall than those who did not. Even though the participants in all three groups ate similar amounts of food, the participants who received training chose foods lower in calorie density.

    “All the groups were served the same meals, but their food choices differed. The participants who went through the training consumed more of the lower calorie-dense foods and less of the higher calorie-dense foods than the untrained controls,” Zuraikat said. “Consequently, trained participants’ calorie intake was less than that of the control groups, whose intake didn’t differ by weight status.”

    The researchers say the study — published in the journal Appetite — illustrates the strength of the portion-size effect while also suggesting easier, more sustainable strategies for managing calorie intake.

    “The study supports the idea that eating less of the higher-calorie-dense foods and more of the nutritious, lower-calorie-dense foods can help to manage hunger while consuming fewer calories,” said Barbara Rolls, professor and the Helen A. Guthrie Chair of Nutritional Sciences, Penn State. “You still have a full plate, but you’re changing the proportions of the different types of foods.”

    Liane S. Roe and Christine E. Sanchez, both of Penn State, were co-investigators in this study.

    The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the USDA supported this project.


  7. Study suggests imagining a successful future can help students overcome everyday difficulties

    February 10, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Springer press release:

    Having a clear picture in mind of what their future will look like can motivate students to keep going despite the challenges of college life. This strategy seems to be particularly effective for female students from relatively low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds says Mesmin Destin of Northwestern University in the US. He is the lead author of a study in Springer’s journal Motivation and Emotion that looked at the role of identity-based motivation in people’s college experiences. College is a time of great opportunity for some, but can be stressful for others. It is often the first time that many students are away from the consistent and familiar support of their family and friends. Vulnerable students from lower SES backgrounds often encounter greater financial and psychological challenges than others, and this can lead to hesitation and even withdrawal from difficult situations, such as when interacting with their lecturers or taking tests and exams.

    Destin and his colleagues wanted to understand if students’ responses to academic challenges improves when they look forward to the future. This idea is built around the theory of identity-based motivation. It holds that people can take positive action during times of adversity when they imagine a successful future for themselves.

    “The theory of identity-based motivation proposes that activating a focus on a successful future identity may be especially powerful in motivating students who are vulnerable during challenging academic situations to develop a sense of action readiness,” explains Destin. “This involves feeling ready and able to take appropriate action when confronting difficulty.

    In two almost identical laboratory experiments — one involving 93 female students, the other 185 students (including 101 women) — participants were first asked either to write about their past or their future success. After their contemplations, the participants were filmed during a mock interview with a so-called lecturer, and then had to complete a difficult academic test. The research team noted whether participants’ body language was bold and confident, and measured the amount of effort participants’ put into the academic test.

    The results were consistent with the theory of identity-based motivation. Destin and his team found that having a successful future identity can prevent especially female students from lower SES backgrounds from withdrawing during challenging academic situations. Specifically, lower SES women who wrote about their future identities displayed greater action readiness compared to those who contemplated their past. They showed more confident body language. It helped them to put more effort into tackling the test, and had an indirect effect on their performance.

    “Activating imagined successful future identities appears to provide a potential pathway to enable vulnerable students to effectively navigate everyday stressors,” says Destin. “The findings therefore suggest that certain students may benefit from strategies that remind them to visualize their successful futures prior to any difficult and important task that they might otherwise be likely to avoid.”


  8. Study suggests painting a realistic picture of difficulties of weight loss may actually be helpful

    February 9, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Drexel University press release:

    To reach your New Year’s fitness goals, a bit of reverse psychology might be in order. Telling people that weight loss is extremely challenging — rather than imparting a “You can do it!” mantra — motivated them to shed more weight, according to a new study by psychologists at Drexel University. However, the strategy did not compel participants to achieve the goal for which it was originally designed: to modify or replace many of the unhealthy foods in their homes.

    The study’s findings, published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, have conflicting implications, says Michael Lowe, PhD, a professor at Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences.

    “On one hand, giving overweight people a realistic sense of the dilemma that they are in and the powerful forces they are up against — including a genetic predisposition toward obesity and an increased susceptibility to many food cues in the environment — may actually promote cognitive restraint over their eating in the short-term,” Lowe said. “But, on the other hand, this message did not motivate participants to make numerous changes to the foods they surround themselves with.”

    Lowe and a team of researchers originally set out to determine the effectiveness of three weight loss interventions: behavior therapy, behavior therapy plus meal replacements, or a condition focused on getting people to change foods in their home food environments. They enrolled 262 overweight and obese individuals and assigned them to one of the three methods, while tracking their weight over a three-year period.

    Behavior therapy — the current “gold standard” in weight loss treatment — involves group support, regular weigh-ins, exercise, explicit goal setting and monitoring food intake, while meal replacement treatment replaces breakfast and lunch with calorie-controlled shakes or nutrition bars.

    Behavior therapy is aimed at bolstering someone’s internal sense of self-regulation over food intake and exercise. But research has shown that increases in self-control are not sustainable, and lost weight is almost always regained. The powerful lure of foods high in fat, sugar and salt has been well-documented, and existing treatments do not do enough to ensure that foods kept in the home are permanently changed in ways that make self-control more feasible, according to Lowe.

    “You can’t just give advice,” he said. “You have to work with people to eliminate and substitute very specific foods, and teach them to prepare food differently.”

    That’s why his research team hypothesized that modifying the home food environment (or HFE) would be the most effective strategy for losing and maintaining weight loss. Participants in this group were given homework assignments to identify and make numerous changes to specific foods that were still satisfying but less calorically damaging.

    “Asking people to make healthy decisions, when there are thousands of food choices available, is both emotionally challenging and also complicated,” Lowe said. “HFE treatment is really about mechanically trying to ensure that these changes are made, so the level of chronic temptation generated by foods in their homes is reduced.”

    Most importantly, the research team repeatedly reminded the HFE group about the challenges associated with weight loss and maintenance. In doing this, the researchers aimed to acknowledge the participants’ vulnerability to overconsume favorite foods.

    “We said, ‘It’s impressive and encouraging that you are taking this step to improve your weight and health, but we need to help you understand the daunting challenges you’re facing.’ The reason we did this was not to discourage them, but to give them a more realistic sense of how crucial it is for them to make lasting changes in their parts of the food environment that they could control,” Lowe said.

    People struggling with their weight are likely to hold themselves responsible, even though a number of internal (heredity, for example) and external (fast food restaurants) forces are at play and beyond their control, Lowe said. The researchers suggested that by making multiple changes to their food environment, participants would be reducing the need to perpetually exercise self-control to maintain the weight they lost.

    In addition to measuring the participants’ weights during six assessment sessions over three years, the researchers also assessed conditions such as binge eating, quality of life, cognitive restraint and food cravings by using questionnaires and statistical analysis.

    At the end of the three-year study period, the researchers found that those in the HFE group lost more weight than those in the behavior therapy group. However, the differential in weight loss was modest, and all participants showed the familiar trend toward weight regain.

    “We failed to get them to translate our warnings into the kind of actions we were trying to get them to take,” Lowe said.

    The warnings did, however, have a positive — though unanticipated — effect. Cognitive restraint — defined by a participant’s ability to actively make healthy choices and measured with mediation analysis — showed the longest, most prolonged increase in the HFE participants, when compared to the other two treatment groups.

    This suggests that the researchers’ rhetoric about the difficulties of sustaining weight loss may have actually caused the participants in the HFE group to “push back” against this message and increase their vigilance over their eating, Lowe said.

    “That is, by questioning the usefulness of building self-control skills, the HFE treatment may have bolstered the very capacity it was meant to downplay — stronger self-control with regard to food,” the study authors write.

    Though surprising, these results have potentially clinically-useful implications. By emphasizing the many factors that make lasting weight loss so difficult, it may help motivate individuals to mentally and behaviorally cope with these factors, according to Lowe.

    “Rather than acting as cheerleaders giving facile encouragement, leaders of weight loss groups might serve their clients better by providing a more sobering description of the challenges participants face,” Lowe explained.

    However, since the participants in the HFE condition did not make greater changes to their home food environment, future studies should examine how to better improve and monitor this weight loss intervention, such as sending dieticians or other practitioners directly to clients’ homes for periodic visits.

    For Lowe, the study reinforces the challenging reality for those seeking to maintain weight loss — and makes a strong case for policies (such as Philadelphia’s beverage tax) that focus on preventing, rather than treating, the problem of obesity in the United States.

    “Once these conditions develop and you are continuing to live in the same obesogenic environment, it is unrealistic to expect that many people will be able to sustain a large weight loss,” he said. “Society ultimately needs to prevent these unhealthy weight gains before they occur.”


  9. Study suggests teenagers are sophisticated users of social media

    February 8, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Taylor & Francis Group press release:

    Teenagers are far more critical users of social media than we give them credit for, and need to be better supported in reaping the benefits social media can have.

    A new study published today in Sport, Education and Society sheds light upon teens’ online habits, finding that young people are not simply passive recipients of all the content available online, as commonly thought.

    Analyzing 1,300 responses from teenagers aged 13 to 18 from ten UK schools, researchers set out to discover how young people engaged with health-related social media, and understand the influence this had on their behaviors and knowledge about health.

    They discovered that most teenagers would ‘swipe past’ health-related content that was not relevant to them, such as ‘suggested’ or ‘recommended’ content, deeming it inappropriate for their age group.

    Many were also highly critical of celebrity-endorsed content, with one participant referring to the celebrity lifestyle as ‘a certain lifestyle that we are not living’, because they were more likely to be ‘having surgery’ than working out in the gym.

    However, many participants still found it difficult to distinguish between celebrity-endorsed content and that posted by sportsmen and women, leaving them vulnerable to celebrity influence.

    The pressure of peers’ ‘selfies’, which often strived for perfection, and the complex social implications of ‘liking’ each other’s posts, were recurring themes in the young people’s responses. Both of these activities had the potential to alter teenagers’ health-related behaviors.

    Lead author Dr Victoria Goodyear, of the University of Birmingham, emphasized the need to be more aware of both the positive and negative impacts social media can have upon young people. She said: “We know that many schools, teachers and parents/guardians are concerned about the health-related risks of social media on young people.

    “But, contrary to popular opinion, the data from our study show that not all young people are at risk from harmful health-related impacts. Many young people are critical of the potentially damaging information that is available.”

    Despite teenagers’ ability to assess content, the study emphasizes that adults still have a crucial role to play in supporting young people, and helping them to understand how harmful health-related information might reach them.

    Professor Kathleen Armour, the University of Birmingham’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, adds: “It is important to be aware that teenagers can tip quickly from being able to deal competently with the pressures of social media to being overwhelmed.

    “If they are vulnerable for any reason, the sheer scale and intensity of social media can exacerbate the ‘normal’ challenges of adolescence. Adult vigilance and understanding are, therefore, vital.”

    Dr Goodyear suggests that adults should not ban or prevent young people’s uses of social media, given that it provides significant learning opportunities. Instead, schools and parents/guardians should focus on young people’s experiences with social media, helping them to think critically about the relevance of what they encounter, and understand both the positive and harmful effects this information could have.

    Crucially, these discussions must be introduced into the classroom to help address the current gap which exists between the ways in which young people and adults understand social media.


  10. How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

    February 6, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of California – San Diego press release:

    Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus of the human brain by distinct, sparse sets of neurons.

    The findings are published in the January 15 issue of PNAS Online Early Edition.

    Episodic memories are recollections of past events that occurred at a particular time and place, a sort of mental time travel to recall, for example, a past birthday party or conversation with a friend. Encoding of episodic memories occurs in the hippocampus — a pair of small, seahorse-shaped regions located deep within the central portion of the brain — but the precise mechanism and numbers of neurons involved has been unclear.

    “Scientists are interested in these issues not only because of their implications for models of memory, but also for health-related reasons,” said first author John Wixted, PhD, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology at UC San Diego. “For example, degeneration in this region of the brain is responsible for memory loss in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”

    Wixted, with Larry Squire, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Neurosciences and Psychology in UC San Diego School of Medicine, and colleagues studied brain function in 20 epileptic patients undergoing intracranial monitoring for clinical purposes.

    Specifically, they recorded single-neuron activity as study participants read a continuous stream of words, some of which were repeated. Participants were asked to indicate whether the words were “new” or “old” if they recalled seeing the word earlier. Strong neural activity in the hippocampus associated with repeated words, but not novel words, was deemed evidence of activity related to episodic memory.

    The scientists found that individual episodic memories are encoded and represented by the strong activity of small (fewer than 2.5 percent) and usually non-overlapping sets of hippocampal neurons, a finding that perhaps helps explain why past research efforts have struggled to detect the process. At the same time, they noted that the firing rates or activity of remaining hippocampal neurons (approximately 97.5 percent) were suppressed — a phenomenon called neural sharpening. These findings are significant because they confirm what scientists have long believed to be true but for which direct evidence had been lacking.

    The researchers also looked for related activity in the amygdala, a nearby brain region associated with emotion and emotional memory. Models do not predict episodic memories are encoded in the amygdala by sparse sets of neurons as they are in the hippocampus, and, indeed, the scientists found no such activity there.

    “If treatments and preventions are to be developed for memory problems, and for diseases that affect memory,” said Squire, “it will be important to know how the brain accomplishes learning and memory: What brain structures are important for memory and what jobs do they do? In our study, we found what would have been easily missed were it not for theoretical models of memory that had been developed earlier.”

    Co-authors include: Stephen D. Goldinger, Arizona State University; Joel R. Kuhn, UC San Diego; Megan H. Papesh, Louisiana State University; Kris A. Smith, David M. Treiman and Peter N. Steinmetz, Barrow Neurological Institute.