gmusic@nurturingnatures.co.uk

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...

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 difference to how we approach our work or other areas of our lives.

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In praise of confusion and uncertainty

A new study  [1] has found that being confused is an important part of learning. The work undertaken by Sidney D’Mello with colleagues at the University of Notre Dame discovered that by deliberately but carefully inducing confusion in a learning session about a complex  issue, people in fact learnt more effectively and were also then able to apply their knowledge to new problems.  For example subjects were introduced to debates about scientific matters such as whether a drug will or won’t be effective in certain conditions. They then were exposed to various views, some of which contradicted each other and the subjects had to decide which opinion had more scientific merit using incomplete and sometimes contradictory information. The subjects in whom such confusion was induced scored higher on a difficult post-test than a control group and could more successfully identify flaws in new case studies. “We have been investigating links between emotions and learning for almost a decade, and find that confusion can be beneficial to learning if appropriately regulated because it can cause learners to process the material more deeply in order to resolve their confusion,” D’Mello said.

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Psychologically disturbed and manic society

An interesting paper was recently published by Dr. Mark Stein,  [1] an award-winning scholar from the University of Leicester, arguing powerfully that  bankers, politicians and economists have in recent years been displaying behaviour very similar to that seen in many disturbed individuals, behaviours which could be described as 'manic'. In particular there has been a massive denial of reality and of the risks being taken, and many foolhardy and dangerous practices which have led to recent financial crises, he argues, a trend he sees as has having been happening for the last two decades. He interestingly uses psychoanalytic concepts less in fashion these days to describe a manic state of mind marked by omnipotence, triumphalism, overactivity and denial of reality. The kind of actions he singles out include the huge increase in credit derivative deals, industrializing credit default swaps and the removal of regulatory safety checks, such as the repeal in the United States of the landmark Glass-Steagall banking controls. These are all viewed as a manic response to the financial crises within capitalism. He argues that unfettered liberalisation, with a very triumphalist feel following the collapse of communism, has hastened this path.

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Our group brains

In this week of festivities, pageants and patriotism on the one hand, and protests, Uncut street parties and stark republican sentiments on the other, it is impossible not to be strikingly reminded how powerful  our sense of allegiance is to groups, belief systems and ideologies, and how central passions and emotions are in such processes, with reason often having very little part to play. An interesting Finnish study has just been published [1] which demonstrates in a dramatic way what we have known already from other sources. We are a group species and emotions are central to this groupishness.. This study looked at the brains of people who viewed similar emotional events, such as in a movie.  They found that feeling similar things can literally lead to the synchronisation of brain regions in groups of people. They derived what are called multisubject voxelwise similarity measures. intersubject correlations (ISCs)] of functional MRI data, which showed that strong, unpleasant emotions in particular synchronized the frontal and midline regions of the brain's emotion processing network, whilst highly stimulating events synchronized activity in those networks in the brain that were involved in attention, vision and sense of touch. It was found that observers who share other's emotional states become a part of a somatosensory and neural framework. This enables them to understand other people's intentions and actions, allowing them to 'tune in' or 'synchronize' with each other. A key researcher in this study,  Professor Lauri Nemmenmaa from Aalto University, argues that  this ability to automatically tune in enables social interaction and group processes.

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The positive in the negative

An interesting paper has just come out in the infant mental health journal [1] which looked at the language used by a group of substance abusing mothers. It showed that the children who did worse had mothers who used more positive emotion words. On the face of it this might seem counter-intuitive but scratching beneath the surface reveals why this is the case. What the researchers found was that of the mums, all of whom were methadone maintained, those who tended to use more positive emotion words were in fact avoidant of any negative emotions and tended to gloss over them. Very interestingly these mums were also the ones who scored lowest on the Parent Development Interview, a score that measures reflective functioning, and indeed lower reflective functioning also came with increased substance abuse and lower sensitivity to the child.

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The trouble with testosterone: confidence, aggression and dominance

Watching the demise of my football team’s champions league hopes, and being all too aware of not only stress levels but also how my optimism and confidence gave way to despondency as hopes began to fade, I coped by an intellectual defence. I begun to think again about sport and hormones and managed my disappointment by  trying to make sense of the contradictory role that testosterone plays,  in male lives particularly but also in females. A recent study   by  Leander van der Meij of the VU University, Amsterdam showed that testosterone levels increase when watching football matches, and the researchers suggest that this is linked to the response to threat and to dominance levels [1]. Indeed another study just published showed that males when given artificial does of testosterone stare for longer at faces which represent threat, even when these faces are out of awareness[2]. We have known for a while that sports players have higher levels when playing at home and when playing fierce rivals, and even found that male  Obama supporters had higher levels than McCain supporters on the night when the last presidential election results were announced. Such research gets right to the heart of much nature-nurture debate. While we are often saddled with our testosterone levels from pre-birth, and indeed much research suggests that prenatal testosterone levels influences a range of behaviours from sexual choice to the toys we play with, levels rise and fall in response to specific circumstances and in all likelihood particular cultural influences. Southern American men, for example, tend to respond more reactively to potential threat than their northern counterparts.

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Stop that emailing .. and watch the screen time generally

For many email is one of the curses of modern life. A new study by Gloria Mark, Stephen Voida and Armand Cardello  [1]has shown how the use of email really does ramp up our stress levels and we would be better off taking a break from it. This study used heart rate monitors  and also watched how often workers switched windows on their computers. Some used email as usual and others were taking an enforced break. A bit shockingly, those using email switched windows about twice as often as the non-users,  but more significantly in terms of stress levels, they were on a more or less constant ‘high alert’ state, with constant heart rates. As scientists such as Stephen Porges  [2]have shown us, in emotional health we tend to have more variable heart rates, and indeed heart rate variability is a classic measure of stress levels and emotional health, linked to the activity of the sophisticated branch of  our vagus nerve, which calms us down and helps us feel at ease. Less heart-trate variability normally comes with higher stress levels and release of cortisol. In this study those without email could concentrate more, got more done, suffered less interruptions and time wasted less, were less stressed and did not suffer from too much multi-tasking.

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