1. Listening to happy music may enhance divergent creativity

    September 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the PLOS press release:

    Listening to happy music may help generate more, innovative solutions compared to listening to silence, according to a study published September 6, 2017 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Simone Ritter from Radboud University, The Netherlands and Sam Ferguson from the University of Technology Sydney, Australia.

    Creativity is an important quality in our complex, fast-changing world, as it allows us to generate innovative solutions for a wide range of problems and come up with fresh ideas. The question of what facilitates creative cognition has long been studied, and while music has previously been shown to benefit cognition, little is known about how listening to music affects creative cognition specifically.

    To investigate the effect of music on creative cognition, researchers had 155 participants complete questionnaires and split them into experimental groups. Each group listened to one of four different types of music that were categorized as calm, happy, sad, or anxious, depending on their emotional valence (positive, negative) and arousal (high, low), while one control group listened to silence. After the music started playing, participants performed various cognitive tasks that tested their divergent and convergent creative thinking. Participants who came up with the most original and useful solutions to a task scored higher in divergent creativity, while participants who came up with the single best possible solution to a task scored higher in convergent creativity.

    The researchers found that listening to happy music, which they define as classical music that is positive valence and high in arousal, facilitates more divergent creative thinking compared to silence. The authors suggest that the variables involved in the happy music condition may enhance flexibility in thinking, so that additional solutions might be considered by the participant that may not have occurred to them as readily if they were performing the task in silence.

    This study shows that creative cognition may be enhanced through music, and further research could explore how different ambient sounds might affect creativity and include participants of diverse cultures, age groups, and levels of music experience. The authors suggest that their study may also demonstrate that music listening could promote creative thinking in inexpensive and efficient ways in various scientific, educational and organizational settings.


  2. Study suggests stress behaviours may have evolved to lessen aggression

    by Ashley

    From the University of Portsmouth press release:

    Scratching is more than an itch — when it is sparked by stress, it appears to reduce aggression from others and lessen the chance of conflict.

    Scratching can be a sign of stress in many primates, including humans.

    Research by Jamie Whitehouse from the University of Portsmouth, is the first to suggest that these stress behaviours can be responded to by others, and that they might have evolved as a communication tool to help social cohesion.

    The research, published in Scientific Reports, raises the question whether human scratching and similar self-directed stress behaviours serve a similar function.

    Jamie said: “Observable stress behaviours could have evolved as a way of reducing aggression in socially complex species of primates. Showing others you are stressed could benefit both the scratcher and those watching, because both parties can then avoid conflict.”

    The research team conducted behavioural observations of 45 rhesus macaques from a group of 200, on the 35-acre island of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. The team monitored the naturally occurring social interactions between these animals over a period of eight months.

    The researchers found that scratching in the monkeys was more likely to occur in times of heightened stress, such as being close to high-ranking individuals or to non-friends.

    Stress scratching significantly lowered the likelihood of a scratching monkey being attacked.

    The likelihood of aggression when a high ranking monkey approached a lower ranking monkey was 75 per cent if no scratching took place, and only 50 per cent when the lower ranking monkey scratched.

    Scratching also reduced the chance of aggression between individuals who did not have a strong social bond.

    Jamie said: “As scratching can be a sign of social stress, potential attackers might be avoiding attacking obviously stressed individuals because such individuals could behave unpredictably or be weakened by their stress, meaning an attack could be either risky or unnecessary.

    “By revealing stress to others, we are helping them predict what we might do, so the situation becomes more transparent. Transparency ultimately reduces the need for conflict, which benefits everyone and promotes a more socially cohesive group.”

    The researchers expect the findings will lead to a better understanding of stress and the evolution of stress in humans as well as how we manage stress in captive animals.


  3. Study suggests believing you have fewer friends than your peers can contribute to unhappiness

    by Ashley

    From the University of British Columbia press release:

    Feel like everyone else has more friends than you do? You’re not alone– but merely believing this is true could affect your happiness. A new study from the University of British Columbia, Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School has found that new university students consistently think their peers have more friends and spend more time socializing than they do. Even when that’s untrue, simply believing so affected students’ wellbeing and sense of belonging.

    “We know the size of your social networks has a significant effect on happiness and wellbeing,” said study lead author Ashley Whillans, assistant professor at Harvard Business School who carried out the research while a PhD candidate at UBC. “But our research shows that even mere beliefs you have about your peers’ social networks has an impact on your happiness.”

    The researchers used data collected from a survey of 1,099 first-year students at UBC. Students were asked how many friends they had made and to estimate how many friends their peers had made since starting school in September.

    The researchers found a greater proportion of students (48 per cent) believed other students had made more close friends than they did. Thirty-one per cent believed the opposite.

    A second survey tracking 389 students across their first year found students who believed their peers had more friends at the beginning of the year reported lower levels of wellbeing.

    However, several months later, the same students who thought their peers had moderately more friends than they did at the beginning of the year reported making more friends compared to students who thought their peers had many more friends.

    “We think students are motivated to make more friends if they think their peers only have one or two more friends than they do,” said Whillans. “But if they feel like the gap is too big, it’s almost as if they give up and feel it isn’t even worth trying.”

    Frances Chen, the study’s senior author and assistant professor in the UBC department of psychology, said the public nature of social activities is likely why students feel their peers are doing better socially.

    “Since social activities, like eating or studying with others, tend to happen in cafes and libraries where they are easily seen, students might overestimate how much their peers are socializing because they don’t see them eating and studying alone,” said Chen.

    The findings could help inform university initiatives to support students’ transition to university life, possibly through an intervention to correct social misperceptions and promote friendship formation, said Chen.

    More research is needed to determine whether the same pattern emerges among new immigrants, or people moving to a new city or starting a new job, said Chen.

    “These feelings and perceptions are probably the strongest when people first enter a new social environment, but most of us probably experience them at some point in our lives,” she said.


  4. Study identifies biomarker for atypical development in infants at risk for developing autism

    by Ashley

    From the Columbia University Medical Center press release:

    New research from the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) identifies a potential biomarker that predicts atypical development in 1- to 2-month-old infants at high versus low familial risk for developing autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The search for neurobiological markers that precede atypical trajectories is important in infants with a high risk for developing autism-related disorders because early recognition allows for early intervention and mitigation of difficulties later in life.

    Using data from National Database for Autism Research (NDAR), lead author Kristina Denisova, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at CUMC and Fellow at the Sackler Institute, studied 71 high and low risk infants who underwent two functional Magnetic Resonance imaging brain scans either at 1-2 months or at 9-10 months: one during a resting period of sleep and a second while native language was presented to the infants. After extracting measures of head movements during the scans, the statistical characteristics of these movements were quantified.

    The study found that infants at high risk for developing ASD have elevated levels of “noise” and increased randomness in their spontaneous head movements during sleep, a pattern possibly suggestive of problems with sleep. In addition, 1- to 2-month-old high risk infants showed more similar signatures while listening to native language and while sleeping while low risk infants showed distinct signatures during the two conditions.

    Further, specific features of head movements during sleep at 1-2 months predicted future flatter (delayed) early learning developmental trajectories in the high-risk babies. The existence of generally atypical learning trajectories in the high risk group was verified in separate data sets from four representative high risk infant-sibling studies comprising a total of 1,445 infants with known ASD outcomes as children. These analyses showed that high risk infants — even those without ASD diagnoses — have significantly lower functioning in childhood relative to low risk infants. The current study reveals a possible way to predict which 1-2 months-old infants will show atypical developmental trajectories as toddlers.

    Dr. Denisova said, “The finding that head movement signatures are responsive to high context stimuli (native language speech) in low but not high risk infants is informative because it suggests that infants whose siblings were diagnosed with ASD are less attuned to evolutionarily important stimuli early in life.” She added that this response pattern may underlie atypical information processing in individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders.

    Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, MD, an autism researcher who was not involved in this study, noted, “This study is a good example of how existing data can be mined for new insights. Additional work is needed to replicate the current findings and understand the underlying mechanisms, but this work suggests new ways to look at movement or motor function in infants at high risk of ASD.”


  5. Study examines gap between feelings and content on Twitter

    by Ashley

    From the University of Warwick press release:

    Twitter is an unreliable witness to the world’s emotions, according to University of Warwick sociology expert Dr Eric Jensen.

    In a new paper, Dr Jensen, Associate Professor in the University of Warwick’s Department of Sociology, highlights the risks of assuming that Twitter accurately reflects real life.

    With over 300 million monthly active users around the globe sharing their thoughts in 140 characters or less, Dr Jensen acknowledges that studies based on Twitter data are “particularly alluring” to researchers and the media. However, he cautions against this “big data gold rush,” pointing out that there is no evidence that social media content shared on Twitter is a truthful reflection of how its users feel.

    Twitter users have developed their own unique cultural behaviour, conversations and identities, which shape the ways in which they present their views online. Social convention, power relationships and identity influence online conversation just as much as off-line interactions, but in ways that are not yet fully understood.

    Dr Jensen also highlights the problems of drawing broader conclusions from a sample of Twitter users. It has been proven in several studies that Twitter users are not representative of the general population. In just one example, men are much more likely to use Twitter than women. Prolific users who tweet many times a day may be over-represented in any sample dataset.

    Commenting on his findings, Dr Jensen said: “Twitter users present only one side of themselves on social media, shielding their true feelings for good reasons, such as professional reputation. There is clearly a large gap between what people post on social media and how they really feel, but how exactly people manage the relationship between their offline and social media identities is still being uncovered.

    He continued: “When researchers find themselves with easily accessible data, there is a temptation to apply those data to interesting research questions and populations — even when there are limitations in the representativeness of the sample.

    Dr Jensen added: “Enthusiasm for accessing digital data should not outpace sound research methodology.”

    The paper, Putting the methodological brakes on claims to measure national happiness through Twitter: methodological limitations in social media analytics, is published in PLOS ONE today.


  6. Childhood maltreatment may change brain’s response to threat

    by Ashley

    From the Society for Neuroscience press release:

    Neural activity associated with defensive responses in humans shifts between two brain regions depending on the proximity of a threat, suggests neuroimaging data from two independent samples of adults in the Netherlands published in The Journal of Neuroscience. In one sample, the findings suggest that emotional abuse during childhood may shift the balance of activity between these regions.

    The amygdala and a closely related region called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) are both activated in response to a threat, but it is unclear how these regions orchestrate defensive responses in humans. Floris Klumpers and colleagues found that anticipation of an uncomfortable but harmless electrical shock was associated with increased activity in BNST, which is strongly connected with other brain regions that may be involved in deciding how to respond to a distant threat. In contrast, the shock itself was associated with increased activity in the amygdala, which maintains stronger connections with lower brain regions that may facilitate immediate and involuntary responses to acute danger, such as increased heart rate.

    Finally, the authors found that participants in one sample who reported greater childhood maltreatment (primarily emotional abuse and neglect rather than physical and sexual abuse) exhibited increased amygdala activity during shock anticipation. This finding shows how early life stress may impact an individual’s perception of distant threats.


  7. Study sheds new light on how brain operates like GPS

    September 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Florida State University press release:

    Every time you walk out of a building, you immediately see where you’re at and then step toward a destination. Whether you turn left, right or go straight ahead, you don’t even think about it. Simple, right?

    Not exactly. The brain performs a complex calculation that works a lot like the Global Positioning System.

    Florida State University’s Aaron Wilber, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, has discovered new insights into how the brain is organized to help a person navigate through life. His findings were published today in the September issue of the journal Neuron.

    “We have not had a clear understanding of what happens when you step out of a subway tunnel, take in your surroundings and have that moment where you instantly know where you are,” Wilber said. “Now we’re getting closer to understanding that.”

    Wilber wanted to get a clearer picture of how a person makes the transition from seeing a scene and then translating the image into a plan for navigation.

    The parietal cortex is the part of the brain that helps make that happen. It integrates information coming in from various senses and helps a person understand what action to take as a result. The response gets recorded as a memory with help from other parts of the brain, creating a “map” of the location that a person can recall to help get around from place to place.

    Then in the future a person can link that same view, or even just a part of it, to the brain’s map and know what action to take.

    Wilber discovered how the parietal cortex allows us to perform the appropriate action for a particular location.

    Lots of single cells in that region take in streams of sensory information to help a person get oriented, but those individual cells also cluster together in larger modules that work together. Those modules in the parietal cortex generate a physical response and, at the same time, are able to reconfigure themselves as a person learns and makes memories.

    “These different modules are talking to each other and seem to be changing their connections just like single cells change their connections,” Wilber said. “But now we’re talking about large groups of cells becoming wired up in different ways as you learn and remember how to make a series of actions as you go about your day-to-day business.”

    Wilber’s team was able to make recordings of various areas in a rat’s brain and found certain regions showed distinct patterns of activity, and those areas were associated with a particular action. Researchers converted those patterns of activity into graphical illustrations, which offered a visual model of brain activity patterns.

    The team then documented an identical sequence of patterns in certain areas of the brain every time the animal performed a series of actions. In fact, the illustrations were so accurate, researchers could identify the animal’s specific behavior just by looking at the brain activity patterns without ever seeing the actual physical action.

    Wilber continued making recordings when the rat slept and, based on the graphical waveforms, discovered the animal actually replayed the same actions in the brain during dreaming. But the dream sequence played out in fast forward at a rate about four times faster than real-life speed.

    “We think these fast-forward ‘dreams’ we observe in rats could explain why in humans when you dream and wake up, you think a lot more time passed than actually has because your dreams happen at high speed or fast forward,” Wilber said. “Maybe dreams happen in fast forward because that would make it easier to create new connections in your brain as you sleep.”

    As those new connections form, Wilber said, then the next time you go to the store you remember how to get there because your brain has linked your previous actions with certain places, such as turning right at a certain intersection.

    Wilber ultimately wants to understand how that process breaks down in people with Alzheimer’s disease or other neurological disorders. He recently received funding from the National Institutes of Health to pursue this research.


  8. Study looks at how couples maintain relationships

    by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences press release:

    For some couples in romantic relationships, just staying together is good enough. But others want to see their relationship move forward — to get better and better — and are willing to put in the effort to get there.

    Family studies researchers at the University of Illinois who study the science behind maintaining romantic relationships focus their work on the central organizing unit — the relationship — rather than on the individual. Through their work, they hope to find out what works and, maybe, what doesn’t in keeping a relationship moving forward.

    “We know relationships are key,” says Brian Ogolsky, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at U of I. “We spend all of our time in these relationships. Whether we are at home, with our siblings, our parents, or our colleagues, these are all extremely important. And consequently we spend very little time alone with our thoughts. So it’s critical that we carefully and methodically understand what’s going on in relationships and what is unique that two individuals bring that you can’t get from studying person ‘x’ and person ‘y’ separately.”

    In a recent study published in the Journal of Family Theory and Review, Ogolsky and his research team discuss romantic relationship maintenance and the two primary motives behind a couple’s attempts at staying together: threat mitigation and relationship enhancement.

    Ogolsky calls these “macro-motives,” or the main reasons people maintain their relationships. In their study, the researchers provide a visual framework of how relationships may be maintained by staving off threats or moved forward by relationship enhancement strategies, which involve putting effort into the relationship for the pleasure of it. For the most part, relationships include a combination of both.

    “Threats to the relationship come from all kinds of different places,” he explains. “Generally, there are many threats early in relationships that can cause problems, but that is not to say that these disappear later. We know couples cheat in the long-term, people end up in new work places and in new situations where possible alternative partners show up, conflicts arise, or a lack of willingness to sacrifice time for your partner emerges.”

    Some threat mitigation tactics can actually become enhancement strategies over time, Ogolsky says, but adds that the reverse is not usually true. “We get to a place where we are pouring energy into the relationship simply because we want to keep the relationship moving forward rather than just mitigating threats.”

    In their integrative model of relationship maintenance, the researchers also illustrate individual versus interactive components of maintenance. “This question of ‘is this an individual thing or is this a couple-level thing’ often goes unanswered. But as we were doing this review, we started noticing that there are ways to maintain the relationship that we can characterize as ‘more or less in our own heads.’ We are doing something to convince ourselves that this is a good relationship and therefore it’s good for our relationship,” Ogolsky explains. “Things like positive illusions, the idea that we can believe our relationship is better than it is or that our partner is better than he or she is. We can do that without our partner.”

    Mitigating conflict, however, is something that partners must do together. “Good conflict management or forgiving our partner for doing something wrong is an interactive process. When a threat comes in, we can do one of two things: we can ditch our partner or forgive them over time.”

    The same is true of enhancement strategies: partners can do things individually or interactively. “Individually, even the act of thinking about our relationship can be enhancing. Whereas engaging in leisure activities together, talking about the state of our relationship, these are all interactive,” Ogolsky says.

    But why study relationship maintenance as a science?

    While Ogolsky rarely offers direct interventions to couples, he explains that he tends to study the positive side of relationships because of what can be learned from people who are going through what, he says, is inherently a very turbulent thing.

    “Relationships have ups and downs. I never go into my work saying people should stay together or they should break up. Relationships are individualized, a unique pairing of people that comes with a unique history. What we are talking about here are processes that exist across different kinds of couples, some of which work very well for some people, some of which may not work for some people. I am interested in understanding processes that keep relationships moving.”

    For the review, Ogolsky and his team searched for previous research, regardless of discipline, dealing with relationship maintenance. They eventually discussed about 250 studies in the paper (reviewing more than 1,100) that deal with romantic relationships and that met their criteria. Ogolsky hopes the review will bring together relationship scholars from across many disciplines.


  9. Study suggests belief in free will affects causal attributions when judging others’ behavior

    by Ashley

    From the Ghent University press release:

    Six studies demonstrate that believing in free will increases the correspondence bias and predicts prescribed punishment and reward behavior.

    Free will is a cornerstone of our society, and psychological research demonstrates that questioning its existence impacts social behavior. In six studies, we tested whether believing in free will is related to the correspondence bias, which reflects people’s automatic tendency to overestimate the influence of internal as compared to external factors when interpreting others’ behavior.

    All studies demonstrate a positive relationship between the strength of the belief in free will and the correspondence bias. Moreover, in two experimental studies, we showed that weakening participants’ belief in free will leads to a reduction of the correspondence bias. Finally, the last study demonstrates that believing in free will predicts prescribed punishment and reward behavior, and that this relation is mediated by the correspondence bias.

    Overall, these studies show that believing in free will impacts fundamental social-cognitive processes that are involved in the understanding of others’ behavior.


  10. Studies suggest “power poses” don’t work

    by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    The claim that holding a “power pose” can improve your life became wildly popular several years ago, fueling the second most-watched TED talk ever but also casting doubts about the science behind the assertion.

    Now comes the most definitive evidence to date — a wave of scientific studies spearheaded by a Michigan State University researcher — suggesting that power poses do not improve your life.

    “This new evidence joins an existing body of research questioning the claim by power pose advocates that making your body more physically expansive — such as standing with your legs spread and your hands on your hips — can actually make you more likely to succeed in life,” said Joseph Cesario, MSU associate professor of psychology.

    Cesario co-edits a scientific journal, Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology, that recently published seven studies, all of which attempted — unsuccessfully — to replicate and extend the effects of power pose research. In other words, none of the studies showed positive effects of power poses on any behavioral measure, such as how well you perform in a job interview. The studies were even reviewed by Dana Carney, a University of California Berkeley professor who was one of the authors of the original power pose research.

    In addition, Cesario and MSU graduate student David Johnson recently published four new studies testing whether holding power poses impacted important behaviors such as how well you do in a business negotiation. The work, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, again found no evidence that making yourself expansive mattered at all.

    “There is currently little reason to continue to strongly believe,” Cesario said, “that holding these expansive poses will meaningfully affect people’s lives, especially the lives of the low-status or powerless people.”

    Led by Carney and Amy Cuddy from Harvard University, the original power pose study, in 2010, suggested that holding such poses can make you more likely to succeed in life, especially if you are “chronically powerless because of lack of resources, low hierarchical rank or membership in a low-power social group.”

    Cuddy’s June 2012 TED talk, now with more than 42 million views, argued that “power posing” — or standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — will boost feelings of confidence and will have an impact on one’s chances for success, such as in a job interview.

    When you’re alone before the interview, Cuddy recommends, hold a power pose for two minutes — whether that’s standing with hands on hips, leaning over a table with your fingertips on the surface, or perhaps seated with your feet on the table and your arms folded behind your head.

    “Share [this science] with people, because the people who can use it the most are the ones with no resources and no technology and no status and no power,” Cuddy concludes the TED talk. “Give it to them because they can do it in private. They need their bodies, privacy and two minutes, and it can significantly change the outcomes of their life.”

    But the new research stands in stark contrast to Cuddy’s claim. Cesario’s research and the findings from the journal he co-edits do find that holding power poses makes people feel more powerful, but that’s where the effect ends.

    “Feeling powerful may feel good, but on its own does not translate into powerful or effective behaviors,” Cesario said. “These new studies, with more total participants than nearly every other study on the topic, show — unequivocally — that power poses have no effects on any behavioral or cognitive measure.”

    In several of the experiments by MSU’s Cesario and Johnson, for example, participants watched Cuddy’s TED talk, held a power pose and then completed a negotiation task with another participant. The participants who held the power poses did no better than their partners.

    In addition, the seven studies that appear in a special issue of Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology also fail to replicate the power pose effects.

    “Based on the papers in the special issue, and prior replication attempts, one could conclude that the power pose effect on behavioral outcomes does not replicate,” the researchers, including Cesario and Dana Carney, write in the journal.

    Carney puts it even more bluntly in a previously posted statement on her website: “As evidence has come in over these past 2-plus years, my views have updated to reflect the evidence. As such, I do not believe that power pose effects are real.”