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This blog is to critically introduce, and contextualise, new research findings from developmental research, neuroscience, attachment theory  and other areas of psychology that are topical or are likely to whet the appetite of  anyone interested. The aim is to discuss research which will feel relevant and which might even, if lucky, make a differenc...e to how we approach our work or other areas of our lives. More

Happiness, friends and values bigger than ourselves

As a few weeks of lazy holidaying beckons for some of the  luckier ones amongst us, in this blog, the last for a while,  I find myself thinking about that old chestnut, happiness again, and  the Good Life, or Eudemia as the Greeks called it. I was struck by a piece of research that has just come out outlining 2 very different kinds of happiness, both of which have very different effects on our health and well-being. [1].

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Chris Froome, tour de France, individualism and cooperative groups

We now know that Chris Froome is the 2nd British winner of the tour de France in as many years, an extraordinary achievement. Cycling  might not be everybody’s favourite sport but it does offer fascinating insights into the relative importance in human nature of both individualism and being a  group player. 

How often in this race did we see individuals or small groups breakaway from the main pack of riders. How often too were they clawed back by cyclists working hard for each other. These of course were cyclists who were also arch rivals yet when they needed to they pulled together. When a breakaway group did succeed and escape the peloton this was partly because the breakaway group all worked for each other, and often also because the main peloton had too many people making individual breaks rather than working together. Groups of individualists, however brilliant, will never outcompete highly cooperative groups. This is true of all team sports but also it seems of groups in human evolutionary history [1]

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Pinker's Porkies and Views on Human Nature

Not long ago Stephen Pinker, who appeared on Desert Island Disks this week,  published a book to great acclaim called The Better Angels of Our Nature [1]. In this he argued that violent deaths had steadily been decreasing over the last few centuries. His message overall was that things are getting better, and this was a message that has pleased many people, not least those who think that the socio-economic system in which we currently live is as good as it gets.

Pinker presents in a paradoxical way. He talks and writes like a  typical left-leaning liberal but many of his ideas have a somewhat reactionary tinge. In particular his enchantment with the idea that our personalities are primarily formed by our genes has been taken to suggest, as argued  by Judy Rich-Harris [2]  who he greatly admires, that parents make very little difference to  how a child turns out. His book the Blank Slate [3] similarly took huge swipes at the idea that our personalities might be the product of our experiences,  and I think in that he set up various ‘straw men’ to easily knock down. His argument was in too many ways selective, ignoring for example the extraordinary research from epigenetics showing how genes and environment interact powerfully and that genes have different effects depending on the environment that triggers them. More importantly he ignored the massive evidence about the  powerful effect of early experiences on programming our brains and hormonal systems [4], particularly the effects of stress, anxiety, trauma and neglect, and he also ignored  the extraordinary body of research from attachment theory about the impact of early experiences.

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Are electronic media leading to jumpy brains?

This week two good friends and an academic colleague, all of whose intellectual prowess I admire, all admitted to me with varying degrees of shamefacedness that they are reading less, they just cannot read long books, they are more easily distracted and struggle to concentrate. They and others hint at being more jumpy and restless generally, with lower boredom thresholds and not able to assiduously follow through on either tasks or trains of thought as they once could. I too find it increasingly hard to get through the books that I have been continuing to purchase at previous levels. Two though that I have read in recent weeks have confirmed much of what I and other people have been thinking about the impact of the internet and electronic media on our lives, and indeed on our very brains. These books are The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains by Nicholas Carr [1] and the equally aptly named Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other by Sherry Turkle [2].

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Poverty, resilience and hidden stressors

This week  it was reported that over half a million people in the UK now rely on food banks, as hunger and poverty exact a really heavy price and the recession bites deeply (click for article). This is worrying, maybe especially  alongside growing inequality,. wage freezes and a tougher climate for working people generally. We have been seeing in all reports a consistent rise in mental health problems, suicidality and depression in countries affected by the economic crisis. 

Not everyone of course is similarly affected by poverty or poor environments, or by family conflict, violent communities or even abuse or neglect.  There has been a lot of government and other research which has been trying to focus on what they call resilience factors, and why some people seemingly come through such situations less affected than others. 

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Psychopaths, brains, childhoods and society

This Sunday’s observer had 4 pages devoted to the research and thinking of Adrian Raine, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the foremost researchers on the brain and psychopaths. The article asks many important questions about what gives rise to psychopaths, and is critical of the idea that nurture (such as childhood trauma or poverty) causes this. His new book, the Anatomy of Violence [1], also has in its title, the Biological Roots of Crime, and the guardian article was titled 'How to spot a murderers' brain (click for article) . It is the implications of this that worry me.

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