Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Genome of FLOW: Jamie Wheal at TEDxVeniceBeach

Interesting talk on the efforts to define the "genome" of the flow state, a concept first introduced by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) and expanded on in Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1997).

The Genome of FLOW: Jamie Wheal at TEDxVeniceBeach

Published on Dec 26, 2013

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, this positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields. Jamie Wheal of the FLOW Genome Project has decoded the genome of FLOW and presents its amazing potential to enhance human performance across a plethora of disciplines.

Carl Zimmer - In the Human Brain, Size Really Isn’t Everything

human brain vs bird brain

From the New York Times, Carl Zimmer discusses a new paper from two Harvard neuroscientists, Randy L. Buckner and Fenna M. Krienen, on the connection (or lack of same) between brain size and mind power.

Compared to other mammals,
Human brains are different. As they got bigger, their sensory and motor cortices barely expanded. Instead, it was the regions in between, known as the association cortices, that bloomed.
On a totally unrelated approach, comparing the raven brain and the human brain reveals very few similarities, other than a similar brain size to body size correlation. However, members of the corvid family (especially the New Caledonian Crow, Ravens, and the Eurasian Magpie, the only non-mammal species known to be able to recognize itself in a mirror test.[27]) and  arguably as intelligent as and maybe more intelligent than a 5-year-old child.

In the Human Brain, Size Really Isn’t Everything

Published: December 26, 2013

There are many things that make humans a unique species, but a couple stand out. One is our mind, the other our brain.

The human mind can carry out cognitive tasks that other animals cannot, like using language, envisioning the distant future and inferring what other people are thinking.

The human brain is exceptional, too. At three pounds, it is gigantic relative to our body size. Our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, have brains that are only a third as big.

Scientists have long suspected that our big brain and powerful mind are intimately connected. Starting about three million years ago, fossils of our ancient relatives record a huge increase in brain size. Once that cranial growth was underway, our forerunners started leaving behind signs of increasingly sophisticated minds, like stone tools and cave paintings.

But scientists have long struggled to understand how a simple increase in size could lead to the evolution of those faculties. Now, two Harvard neuroscientists, Randy L. Buckner and Fenna M. Krienen, have offered a powerful yet simple explanation.

In our smaller-brained ancestors, the researchers argue, neurons were tightly tethered in a relatively simple pattern of connections. When our ancestors’ brains expanded, those tethers ripped apart, enabling our neurons to form new circuits.

Dr. Buckner and Dr. Krienen call their idea the tether hypothesis, and present it in a paper in the December issue of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

“I think it presents some pretty exciting ideas,” said Chet C. Sherwood, an expert on human brain evolution at George Washington University who was not involved in the research.

Dr. Buckner and Dr. Krienen developed their hypothesis after making detailed maps of the connections in the human brain using f.M.R.I. scanners. When they compared their maps with those of other species’ brains, they saw some striking differences.

The outer layers of mammal brains are divided into regions called cortices. The visual cortex, for example, occupies the rear of the brain. That is where neurons process signals from the eyes, recognizing edges, shading and other features.

There are cortices for the other senses, too. The sensory cortices relay signals to another set of regions called motor cortices. The motor cortices send out commands. This circuit is good for controlling basic mammal behavior. “You experience something in the world and you respond to it,” Dr. Krienen said.

This relatively simple behavior is reflected in how the neurons are wired. The neurons in one region mostly make short connections to a neighboring region. They carry signals through the brain like a bucket brigade from the sensory cortices to the motor cortices.

The bucket brigade begins to take shape when mammals are still embryos. Different regions of the brain release chemical signals, which attract developing neurons.

“They will tell a neuron, ‘You’re destined to go to the back of the brain and become a visual neuron,’ for example,” Dr. Krienen said.

After mammals are born, their experiences continue to strengthen this wiring. As a mammal sees more of the world, for example, neurons in the visual cortex form more connections to the motor cortices, so that the bucket brigade moves faster and more efficiently.

Human brains are different. As they got bigger, their sensory and motor cortices barely expanded. Instead, it was the regions in between, known as the association cortices, that bloomed.

Our association cortices are crucial for the kinds of thought that we humans excel at. Among other tasks, association cortices are crucial for making decisions, retrieving memories and reflecting on ourselves.

Association cortices are also unusual for their wiring. They are not connected in the relatively simple, bucket-brigade pattern found in other mammal brains. Instead, they link to one another with wild abandon. A map of association cortices looks less like an assembly line and more like the Internet, with each region linked to others near and far.

Dr. Buckner and Dr. Krienen argue that this change occurred because of the way brains develop. In the human brain, some neurons still receive chemical signals that cause them to form a bucket brigade from the sensory cortices to the motor cortices. But because of the brain’s size, some neurons are too far from the signals to follow their commands. “They may have broken off and formed a new circuit,” Dr. Buckner said.

This new wiring may have been crucial to the evolution of the human mind. Our association cortices liberate us from the rapid responses of other mammal brains. These new brain regions can communicate without any input from the outside world, discovering new insights about our environment and ourselves.

Dr. Buckner foresees a number of ways in which the tether hypothesis could be tested. For example, many mammal brains, including chimpanzees’, have yet to be fully mapped. “We’re hoping that in the next 10 or 15 years, that might be possible,” he said.

Dr. Sherwood, the George Washington University expert, praised the hypothesis for being “fairly frugal.” The emergence of the human mind might not have been a result of a vast number of mutations that altered the fine structure of the brain. Instead, a simple increase in the growth of neurons could have untethered them from their evolutionary anchors, creating the opportunity for the human mind to emerge.

More 'Matter' Columns

Friday, December 27, 2013

Sharon K Farber - Why We All Need to be Touched

Sharon Farber, PhD, is the author of When the Body Is the Target: Self-Harm, Pain, and Traumatic Attachments (2002), an excellent book that I have found to be very useful with some of the clients with whom I work. In this post from her Psychology Today blog, The Mind-Body Connection, looks at the importance of touch for emotional and psychological health.

I tend to agree - and I think it's important for therapists to have a list of bodywork practitioners they know and trust (male and female) to whom they can refer clients.

The Mind-Body Connection

Why We All Need to be Touched

Published on December 25, 2013 by Sharon K. Farber, Ph.D. in The Mind-Body Connection

Being touched and touching someone else are fundamental modes of human interaction, and increasingly, many people are seeking out their own "professional touchers" and body arts teachers-- chiropractors, physical therapists, Gestalt therapists, Rolfers, the Alexander-technique and Feldenkrais people, massage therapists, martial arts and T'ai Chi Ch'uan instructors. And some even wait in physicians’ offices for a physical examination for ailments that have no organic cause—they wait to be touched.

The body-oriented approaches are based on a principle that is becoming more obvious to researchers: Ken Wilbur wrote in The Spectrum of Consciousness,
"For every mental 'problem' or 'knot', there is a corresponding bodily 'knot', and vice versa since, in fact, the body and the mind are not two. That is, psychic conflict, guilt, shame, unresolved grief all can be lodged in the body as body memories, and when the site of the psychic difficulty is deeply touched through massage or other manipulation, it can not only release the physical pain but may make the psychic pain accessible."
I remember that soon after my mother died I developed a case of frozen shoulder, technically called adhesive capsulitis, in my left shoulder. It causes stiffness and pain in the shoulder joint and often occurs for no known reason. My doctor had told me that because my shoulder was "frozen", there must be adhesions, or scar tissue that were freezing up my shoulder joint. And probably my body lacked something called synovial fluid, needed to lubricate the shoulder joint. I asked him what caused this to happen. He could not say, because medicine does not really understand why it happens. He referred me for physical therapy.

I like to understand why things happen the way they do and he could not tell me. But I was in pain. I could not sleep in the usual position I sleep in, I couldn’t reach for something on a shelf without feeling pain. So I made an appointment for a physical therapy evaluation for treatment. As I lay on the examining table, the physical therapist came in, smiled, introduced herself and explained what she was going to do. As soon as she put her warm hands on my shoulder, tears welled up in my eyes. I was surprised and embarrassed and turned my head away from her gaze so that she would not see. I suspect she noticed. She continued examining me and I found that I enjoyed it. It felt like a massage, something I am not used to having. She recommended that I come in three times a week and I had to arrange my schedule to do that. She did various exercises with me that I was advised to do at home. As I followed her instructions, I thought and felt a great deal about my mother, with whom I had a complex and ambivalent relationship. I stretched and cried, cried and stretched, wrote about what I was feeling, and after a few months I was better. The pain of my loss had lodged itself in my body, and a woman’s warm touch started to release it. It also probably released some oxytocin in me, the hormone of love and attachment. As I mourned her loss over several months, I realized something. I had had a hard time crying for my mother, whom I loved very much but whom I was angry with too. When there are difficulties in mourning a loss, somatic or psychological difficulties may present themselves. The therapist’s warm touch on my shoulder was lubrication for my soul, needed for me to let go and feel the loss, complicated and ambivalent as it was.

Treatment that uses direct touch can have a depth and potency that can have a great therapeutic impact, which provides some explanation for why so many people are seeking out their own "professional touchers" or are filling the waiting rooms of physicians, waiting for the doctor to find the cause of the pain and make them better. In the process, they are touched. When the patient is assured that the work of the professional toucher is free from infringement, that sexual contact is clearly out of bounds, and that the patient can say "no" to any intervention the body-work practioner proposes, then the patient can have the experience of trust and physical touch in the context of a controlled respectful relationship.

Nature is so intelligent for creating oxytocin. Kerstin Uvnas Moberg became a world authority on ocytocin through her personal experience. When she, was pregnant, delivered, and nursed her four children, she was struck by feeling a state of mind so different from the stress she was used to in connection with life’s other challenges—challenge, performance, and competition. Wanting to understand this scientifically, she learned that there is a key biological marker—oxytocin—that can explain this sense of calm and connectedness in pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing, and through this research, discovered hat oxytocin is able to influence many vital operations in the body. Her research showed that the level of oxytocin in the blood during nursing was correlated with the mothers’ subjective experiences of calmness, and ability to interact with their babies. Oxytocin stimulates growth during pregnancy and stimulates the uterus to expel the newborn It restores the balance between stress and calm It stimulates the muscle activity of orgasm (in both men and women) and can, when conditions are good, strengthen the attachment bond. We are told that “oxytocin is with us throughout our lives.” She wrote that, with a natural delivery to loving parents,
When you were born, oxytocin helped expel you from your mother’s womb and made it possible for her to nurse you. As a small child, you enjoyed your mother’s and father’s loving touch because it released oxytocin in your body. As an adult, you experience the effects of oxytocin when you enjoy good food, or a massage, or an intimate interlude with your romantic partner (Uvnas Moberg 2003, p. 65).
If you’d like to learn more about oxytocin, read Uvnas Moberg’s book The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love, and Healing.

If you’d like to learn more about how, when people lack love and touch in their lives, they may turn to “professional touchers, read my book, When the Body Is the Target: Self-Harm, Pain, and Traumatic Attachments. It will also tell you about how when people lack love and touch in their lives this can result in bodily self harm.

Joseph LeDoux - How the Brain Creates Flashbulb Memories and How Memory Can be a False Witness

From Big Think's In Their Own Words series, here are two brief and excellent articles by neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux (Center for Neural Science at NYU), author of The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (1998) and Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are (2003).

In the first article he describes how the brain creates "flashbulb memories," which he defines as a neuronal event more than a brain event:
As information go through a brain system, if that information is significant, it will form a lasting trace as a result of the release of the transmitter. The other things that are going on at that same time will form a trace, a connection between the active neurons and that will stay in the brain in the form of what we then experience as memory later.
In the second article he gives a brief overview of how his lab has learned to disrupt memory consolidation by injecting a protein synthesis inhibitor directly into the amygdala of a rat. This provides a theoretical pathway for preventing traumatic events from becoming PTSD.

How the Brain Creates Flashbulb Memories

by Joseph LeDoux
December 24, 2013

Whenever we have a memory about some experience, it turns out that there are probably a lot of different systems in the brain that are being activated. Sometimes, as scientists, we talk about memory systems. I think that’s a misnomer because if you think about what memory is, it’s really plasticity in the nervous system. It’s the ability of neurons in the brain to change and neurons in every part of the brain that we’ve looked at have this capability of changing or to become plastic when their experiences change.

From the point of view of the neuron, an experience is the arrival of neurotransmitters being released by another neuron. So, what that does is it changes the way that neuron responds. Across many such events like that in the brain, a memory is formed, or multiple memories are formed. So, it’s really inappropriate to talk about memory systems because almost every system in the brain forms memories.

The way I like to think about it is memory is a feature of neurons rather than a function of brain systems. As information go through a brain system, if that information is significant, it will form a lasting trace as a result of the release of the transmitter. The other things that are going on at that same time will form a trace, a connection between the active neurons and that will stay in the brain in the form of what we then experience as memory later.

Let’s take a situation where you’re driving down the road and you have an accident. You hit your head on the steering wheel and you hit it really hard and the horn gets stuck on and so you hear this loud and annoying noise while you’re bleeding, in pain. It’s really awful and terrible. And then a few days later, you hear the sound of a horn. That sound will go to various parts of your brain simultaneously. When it goes to a part of the brain called the hippocampus, it will remind you of the situation that you’re in, that you were driving, that you had an accident, that you were with John and Peg. But it won’t have the emotional impact unless it also goes to a different part of the brain called the amygdala, which instead of reminding you of the details of the event, will trigger emotional responses in your brain and body. The responses in the body will feed back to the brain, and all of that activity in the brain will give rise to what we call the emotion.

So there are really two different memories, one cognitive and one emotional. They are stored and represented in different brain systems. Again, it’s not that that memory is a function of those systems, but is a feature of the neurons in those systems that allow the system to do its job better.

So, let’s take the case of say, the visual system. It allows us to see the world -- the auditory system allows us to hear the world, the motor system allows us to move in the world. All of these systems are plastic, so plasticity is a feature that allows the visual system to remember what you saw last time so you can see it a little better the next time or the motor system to perform a response better the next time because you’ve done it the previous time. So, again, we want to think of plasticity as a feature of neurons rather than a function that a system is performing.

So, back to the fear example: the sound of the horn goes to one part of the brain, the amygdala, and gives rise to the emotional response into the other part of the brain, the hippocampus, and gives rise to cognitive representation. So, we call this the hippocampal memory, a memory about the emotion, whereas the amygdala memory we call the emotional memory itself. Now these two things happen simultaneously. The amygdale memory is triggered unconsciously. It doesn’t have to be aware of the stimulus in order for that to be triggered. Hippocampal memory is probably triggered unconsciously as well, but you become aware of the memory when it’s triggered because that’s what a hippocampal memory does, it creates a representation of the conscious experience.

But that conscious representation now is going to be amplified by the emotional arousal that is taking place. It’s going to create a new emotional memory, or new memory about emotion that’s going to have that kind of emotional stamp on it. It’s the interaction between cognitive systems and emotion systems in the brain that create what’s called flashbulb memories, which are very vivid strong memories of a particular experience. So, everyone in New York in September 11, 2001, knows what they were doing just as every person my age in November of 1963 remembers the assassination of John Kennedy.

It used to be thought that these flashbulb memories were more accurate than other memories. But new research has shown that these flashbulb memories are not more accurate, they’re just more vivid. So the accuracy is kind of suspect and one of the consequences, or one of the implications of that is that, memories are constructed, or reconstructed when they’re retrieved. And at that point of retrieval, the memory has the opportunity to be changed. And that’s one of the main topics we’ve been working on lately.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
* * * * *

How Memory Can be a False Witness

by Joseph LeDoux
December 26, 2013

A good example of the way memory changes during the retrieval process is a situation where someone goes to court to testify about a crime that they witnessed. On the day of the crime they gave their summary of what happened to the police, so there’s a police record. And then when they go into the court, they talk about something in a completely different way, which it turns out happens to match what they read about in the newspaper.

When they read the newspaper, what they did was updated their memory about the experience. Then in the future, when you retrieve that memory, it’s hard to distinguish what actually happened and what you’ve incorporated since then through other kinds of experiences.

This is now a well-known phenomenon. Each time a memory is taken out, the opportunity is there for it to be changed. This is an updating process and normally it’s a useful thing. If you meet somebody at a party and he’s a nice guy, but then you find out he’s an axe murderer or something like that, you have to immediately change your memory of that person, so you’ve updated it. But there are other ways the memory gets updated as well. In a lab we conditioned a rat to be afraid of a tone. So, the next day, the rat hears the tone and he freezes, because that’s how rats express their fear of the stimulus. But immediately after presenting that tone, we gave the rat a certain kind of drug - which I’ll explain below - and we tested the rat the next day, and the memory was no longer present, or at least can’t be accessed. So, what’s going on?

It’s been known for a long time that memory formation or memory consolidation requires the synthesis of new proteins in the part of the brain that are forming the memory. Researchers discovered that if you block protein synthesis after retrieval you can also disrupt the stability of the memory later. But that idea got lost in the late ’60’s and didn’t stick around. What stuck around was the idea that memories are consolidated and once they are consolidated, each time that you take it out, you take out that same trace over and over again.

The new research that my lab helped rejuvenate in the year 2000 was about manipulating the memory after the rat experiences the retrieval process. So, we gave the rat the tone, and then we blocked protein synthesis after retrieval, rather than after learning. And when we do that the memory is eliminated just as well after retrieval as it’s prevented from being acquired.

So, the unique feature of our experiment was, we were able to do this in the side of the brain where the memory is being formed and stored, which in the case of fear, memory is the amygdala. So, because we did all of the basic work of figuring out all of those circuits, we could go in and put a tiny amount of a protein synthesis inhibitor in the amygdala. And that’s important because you can also do this experiment by giving the protein synthesis inhibitor systemically to the whole body, like if you take a pill, that goes into your body and reaches your brain and does all the stuff, but it’s going everywhere and that’s why many drugs have side effects. So, if you take an anti-anxiety drug, it not only relieves anxiety but it would make you sleepy, it might alter your sex drive, etc.

What we’re doing here is avoiding one of the bad consequences of protein synthesis inhibitors which is that it makes you nauseous and sick and so forth if you take it systemically. And it is pretty toxic, so you would never give a drug like that to a human. This is only something you can do in an animal experiment. So, the protein synthesis inhibitor in our studies was put directly in the amygdala and we avoid all of those side effects and negative consequences since it’s a tiny amount and it doesn’t affect the rest of the body.

When we do that, the rats the next day don’t freeze to the tone. They don’t remember that the tone is now dangerous. So this has triggered a whole wave of research now on the possibility of using this as a treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because, theoretically we can have the people come in, remember their trauma, give them a pill and the next time the cues about the trauma come along, they won’t have the emotional response to it.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Bookforum Omnivore - Understood as Speculative Thought (Philosophy Links)

From Bookforum's Omnivore blog, here is a new collection of links on philosophy, postmodernis, culture, and other obscure topics in which most Americans have little interest.

Understood as speculative thought

Dec 26 2013 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Jim Palmer - Your Life Is Your Spiritual Path

Jim Palmer is author of Notes from (Over) the Edge: Unmasking the Truth to End Your Suffering (2013), Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God (and the unlikely people who help you) (2006), and many other books. He is an ordained minister who has left behind the traditional structures of religion.

"The idea of "being present in the moment" sounds right but can be a little elusive and frustrating when seeking to apply it. It can come across as though one should stop and have some sort of deep or spiritual experience. Instead, consider the possibility that the spiritual life is simply responding to situations as they require. If you need to walk from your kitchen to your bedroom, it's not necessary to stop at each step and "be present in the moment" and have a "spiritual experience." Life itself is spiritual and no moment needs you to do anything to add the spirituality to it. There are some moments, such as catching a beautiful sunset, when you experience deep feelings and feel a greater connection to God and life. But no not suppose that such a moment is more "spiritual" than walking from your kitchen to the bedroom. It's only that the two situations were different, inviting two different responses. Your life is your spiritual path... every part of it."

- Jim Palmer

The Importance of Play: John Cohn at TEDxDelft


According to Wikipedia:
John Maxwell Cohn (born February 9, 1959) is an IBM Fellow and chief scientist of design automation at IBM. Cohn has been an innovator in the area of design automation for both analog and digital custom integrated circuits. Cohn has 60 patents issued or pending in the field of design automation, methodology, and circuits.
In this TEDx Talk, he riffs on the importance of play in the success he has had over his life as an engineer. I could not agree more.

The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp has identified play as one of the seven primary affective circuits in the human brain. From an interview with Panksepp in Discover Magazine:
Panksepp has charted seven networks of emotion in the brain: SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF, and PLAY. He spells them in all caps because they are so fundamental, he says, that they have similar functions across species, from people to cats to, yes, rats.
There is more on the topic of play below the video, also from the Discover Magazine interview.

The importance of play: John Cohn at TEDxDelft

Published on Dec 19, 2013

Dr John Cohn (@johncohnvt) is a self-confessed nerd. He already knew he wanted to be an engineer at the age of eight, found himself a nerdy college, a nerdy job and even a nerdy wife, or at least a fellow-engineer. As a nerd he breaks the mould though. Because onstage, with his rainbow-coloured lab coat, his Einstein-inspired hairdo and his party light headband, he is most of all entertaining and fun. That ties in with his motto: keep things playful. Bring a playful spirit into your work.

John says he is at his most creative, influential, productive and happy when he is playful at his work. With playful he means being in a state of childlike innocence. So playfulness is not just about enjoying your work, you are even more creative, as studies show. You can also reclaim that childlike state, by imagining you are still seven years old.

Life however, has a way of taking play away from us. The harder life gets, the more we have to work at staying playful. If work is not playful anymore, than it is just work. Which is why they call it work, incidentally. Six years ago, life became very difficult for John, when his son Sam died in a car crash. Sam was an organ donor, and when his life ended he saved the life of four other people. Needless to say, John's life changed forever. And trying to get his life back on track involved a playful element, although he didn't think of it like that at the time. John and his family started making SamStones, small stones with Sam's name on it. Now, over six years later, some 40,000 SamStones have travelled all over the world, and each stone tells a story. One of them even went to space and back.

Life will give you reasons not to play, and you have to fight back!
* * * * *

Here are a few of the questions and answers from that interview on the topic of play:
Then you made a U-turn: Instead of studying separation anxiety, you started 
to study play and laughter. Why?

It was the classic masks of theater, sadness and happiness. We had essentially done the work on the sadness mask. I wanted to move to the joy mask. Joy is social, so you’re looking at play. Play is a brain process that feels good, that allows the animal to engage fully with another animal. And if you understand the joy of play, I think you have the foundation of the nature of joy in general. Part of its benefit is simply taking away the psychological pain of separation. Play is engaging in an attachment-like way with strangers, which you have to do later in life.

Time for another animal experiment, right?

To study attachment, we couldn’t use rats or mice. They’re laboratory animals bred inadvertently to live by themselves. But I noticed that rats in the lab are wonderful for play. Psychic pain reduces the inclination to play—but since rats don’t feel it, they can be separated without panic and then when you put them together, bang! They play.

And the rats played with you, too?

After the experiments we’d dim the lights to make the rats more comfortable. That was our time to have fun. You see me sitting there and saying, come on, guys, come on—it’s okay. I knew that if I could tickle them, they would get jazzed up more, and that’s what happened, right in front of the camera.

How did you turn that kind of playing around into a rigorous experiment?

I thought about the hunger research I’d done in the past. If I wanted animals to eat, then the best way was to make sure they hadn’t eaten for a while. If I want animals to play, I’d have to make them hungry for play. So I put them in a cage alone, apart from their family, first for 4 hours, then 8 hours, then 12 hours, and finally 24 hours. I was looking for a behavior that I could use to measure play, like jumping on each other. How often do they bounce and touch each other? Then they run around—it’s too complex to follow unless you do slow-motion movies—and they end up wrestling. These behaviors were very easy to measure. We collected a lot of data on the response to social hunger.

Is play embedded deeply in the brain, the way attachment is?

Many experiments over the years suggested it was, but to be sure I removed the upper brain of the animals at three days of age. Amazingly, the rats still played in a fundamentally normal way. That meant play was a primitive process. We saw, too, that play helped the animals become socially sophisticated in the cortex. That’s why it’s so important to give our kids opportunities for play.

And yet it seems that childhood play has become much more controlled than it was when I was young. 
I have gone to ADHD meetings to consider this childhood problem. But the doctors do not want to hear the possibility that these kids are hyper-playful because they’re starved for real play—because they are giving them anti-play medicines. Teachers are promoting the pipeline of prescription controls as much as any other group, because their lives are hard. They are supposed to be teaching kids at the cortical level of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but if they’ve got kids who are still hungry for play, it’s gonna be classroom chaos. And you can sympathize with them, because they should be getting kids that are sufficiently well regulated to sit and use their upper brains. But the kids’ lower brains are still demanding attention.

What happens to animals if they are deprived of play over 
the long term?

They look normal and they eat normally, they’re just not as socially sophisticated. Animals deprived of play are more liable to get into a serious fight. Play teaches them what they can do to other animals and still remain within the zone of positive relationships. If you have play you become sociosexually more sophisticated. Let’s say you have the classic triangle: two males and one female, because males are competitive for sex. So if you’ve got one animal that’s had lots of play and the other animal hasn’t, guess who is successful? The animal that’s had play knows how to stay between the female and the other male. The other guy’s a klutz.

Did you ever find a way to track and measure the play response in rats?

Yes. I had a postdoctoral student, Brian Knutson, who asked me whether there was a play vocalization. I said, we know they don’t make any audible sounds but maybe there’s ultrasonics. We wound up buying the equipment so his study could be done. Brian came in the first day after it was set up and said, Jaak, there is a sound when the animals are playing. That was the 50-kilohertz chirp [at a pitch far above the range of human hearing].

Scientific American - Highlights from Neuroscience 2013

Scientific American Magazine

Here are 5 of the more interesting research presentations at the recent annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, as determined by the editors of Scientific American. Access PDFs of the abstracts from this year's meeting or download them to your e-reader or mobile device.

Highlights from Neuroscience 2013

The massive annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience brought together tens of thousands of researchers exploring the workings of mind and brain

By John Matson

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Preliminary Thoughts on a New Nomenclature of Psychotherapeutic Diagnosis and Practice

Above is one model of integrative psychotherapy (Erskine and Trautmann, 1996). What follows below are some preliminary thoughts on how I practice as a therapist and how I might change the existing nomenclature to reflect a more client-centered, relational model that rejects pathologizing language and structures (i.e., the DSM).


What counselors and psychotherapists have been taught to identify as symptoms of a corresponding condition pejoratively defined as "mental illness" should rather be understood as adaptations to experience.

All adaptations are at their genesis the best available mechanism for survival. As a person ages, these adaptations become either skillful (healthy) or unskillful (not supporting physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health).


Short-term responses to challenging situations are not, in general, to be seen as adaptations to that experience (i.e., normal human emotional responses to life events such as death of a loved one, losing a job or promotion, surviving an accident, and so on). If, however, there are several similar experiences over a person's lifetime, with a corresponding response pattern that has solidified into what Carl Jung defined as a "complex," then this then can be seen as an adaption and not a response. 


When we join a new client on their healing journey, our task is to identify with them the somatic symptoms, affect dysregulation, cognitive distortions, lost spirituality, the core beliefs, and each domain's corresponding defense mechanisms that block an integrative experience of full health.

An integrative approach assesses from (at least) five domains, four of which are addressed by specific models of psychotherapy that contend their model is the only necessary model:
  • Body - somatic symptoms and unconscious behaviors
  • Affect - ability to regulate affect and for affect to match verbal and behavioral expression
  • Cognitive - possessing rational and non-distorted self-concepts, lack or pervasive thinking errors, or other forms of unskillful cognitive and behavioral scripts
  • Spiritual - a sense of purpose and meaning in one's life whether it's religious, spiritual, or atheist/humanist
The fifth domain is the Core Beliefs a person holds about who s/he is and what other people believe about him or her. These beliefs are deeply held and generally unconscious. They tend to originate in infancy and early childhood, making them difficult to uproot in order to plant new seeds for healthier core beliefs. Further, core beliefs tend to manifest in each of the four other domains listed above.


We are all born (barring organic defects) with a whole and healthy Self-seed (our genetic and characterological template) that will become a mature sense of Self. However, no one escapes childhood without that Self being compromised in some way. Some children are so abused and/or neglected that they never develop a solid sense of self.

Consequently, parts of the self that are either overwhelming (emotional responses to trauma), unsafe (natural behaviors that are punished by caregivers), or not nurtured (for example, capacity for compassion or generosity) are split off from the Self and become self-fragments, ego states, parts, or subpersonalities that often remain unconscious and tend to show up in various forms of projection.

For each split off part, there is a part or parts that manages the outside world in some way to keep those "exiled" parts out of consciousness. Some of the common "managers" are the Pusher (focused on achievement and constant movement toward the next goal), Perfectionist (all or nothing thinking, a need for personal perfection, the failure of which brings intense shame), Pleaser (often middle children or first children who try to make everyone else happy, often at the expense of their own happiness), and the Inner Critic (a part who seeks to ensure the client is never criticized by others by being so hyper-critical of the client that any other criticism will be avoided). 

In order for splitting to become "hard-wired," there must be repeated episodes of the experiences that lead to the splitting. Normal misattunement between child and caregiver will not lead to splitting and, in fact, such misattunements are necessary for the development of resilience when they are quickly repaired by the caregiver.

Worldviews or Reality Frames

It is incumbant upon the therapist to be "experience near" (Kohut) with the client and be able to identify their basic worldview or reality model. This does not mean that the therapist necessarily supports the client's worldview, however, but it does require that the therapist be able to work within that reality frame.

It's also important that a client's worldview be held lightly - different parts of the client will possess alternate worldviews with anywhere from slight to profound variations.

Likewise, when a therapist encounters a new client whose worldview is unfamiliar (for example, someone from another country, or members of Tribal Nations, and so on), it is essential that therapists educate themselves as best they can and that they inquire with the client when they start to make assumptions about the client's experience that may not fit their reality frame.

Models of Psychotherapy

Successful therapeutic interventions require the all five domains are addressed. Here are a few examples of the therapeutic models that address the various domains:

Body - nutrition, exercise, somatic therapies (Somatic Experiencing, Bioenergetics, Yoga Therapy), behavioral psychotherapies, mindfulness-based therapies, Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS - "parts work"), Hakomi, Eye Movement Desensitization, and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Affect - affective neuroscience, interpersonal neurobiology, intersubjective and relational psychotherapies, mindfulness-based therapies, IFS
Cognitive - cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), neurolinguistic programming (NLP), rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT), script analysis (Transactional Analysis), existential psychotherapy, narrative therapy, IFS
Spiritual - transpersonal psychotherapy, Jungian Analytical Psychotherapy, contemplative practices, meta-narrative therapies, existential psychotherapy, IFS (developing "Self-Leadership"), expressive therapies
Core Beliefs - cognitive therapies, relational psychotherapies, IFS, narrative therapies, creative visualization, soul retrieval, expressive therapies

Undoubtedly, there are other models I am not familiar with or that have slipped my mind at the moment, so this list should not be taken as my final position on this topic.

Goals of Psychotherapy

First rule: Do No Harm. Second rule: It's not the therapy, it's the relationship.

If therapists can successfully follow these two rules, and hold a belief in the inherent ability of the client to heal, as well as a belief in the client's ability to know what therapeutic pace and which interventions are best for them, then the client becomes his or her own healer and the therapist simply "midwife" that process with them.

The goal is never to impose a therapist's sense of "mental health" but, rather, to explore with the client what their own sense of mental health looks like and feels like in their lives. Having done so, then it becomes easier for the therapist to identify with the client which areas or domains of their life are not functioning optimally.

Areas of less-than-optimal function are the adaptations defined as unskillful that therapy seeks to minimize while also helping the client learn skillful adaptations to replace those being minimized.


Okay then, that is my first-pass at a new model. Please share your thoughts, comments, and criticisms in the comments section here or at Facebook.

Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation - Jesus Lived Contemplation, More Than Formally Teaching It

Image: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (detail), c. 1601-1602, by Caravaggio

Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation

Seven Themes of an Alternative Orthodoxy
Seventh Theme: Reality is paradoxical and complementary. Non-dual thinking is the highest level of consciousness. Divine union, not private perfection, is the goal of all religion (Goal).

Jesus Lived Contemplation, More Than Formally Teaching It

Meditation 47 of 52

The non-dual paradox and mystery was for Christians a living person, an icon we could gaze upon and fall in love with. Jesus became “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), “the Mediator,” “very God and very human” at the same time, who consistently said, “Follow me.” He is the living paradox, calling us to imitate him, as we realize that “[he] and the Father are one” (John 10:30). In him, the great gaps are all overcome; all cosmic opposites are reconciled in him, as the author of Colossians (1:15-20) so poetically says in an early Christian hymn.

The dualistic mind gives us sanity and safety, and that is good enough. But to address our religious and social problems in any creative or finally helpful way, we also need something more, something bigger, and something much better. We need “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). Jesus in his life and ministry modeled and exemplified the non-dual or contemplative mind, more than academically teaching it. The very fact that the disciples had to ask him for a prayer like the disciples of the Baptist had (Luke 11:1), probably reveals that spoken or recited prayer was not his practice. Why else would he go apart and alone for such long periods, except that his prayer was the prayer of quiet more than synagogue or temple services?
Adapted from The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, pp. 154, 133

The Daily Meditations for 2013 are now available
in Fr. Richard’s new book Yes, And . . .

I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas . . .

. . . and it was only a dream. Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Justin Whitaker - 2013 as the Year of Mindfulness: Critics and Defenders

Over at his Patheos blog, American Buddhist Perspective, Buddhist scholar and philosopher Justin Whitaker examines 2013 as the year of mindfulness. Is mindfulness the wonderful tool Western psychology takes it to be, or are there deeper issues to be considered around skillful means and the ultimate nature of suffering?

Justin offers a great overview of this debate. Here are the first few paragraphs - follow the links to read the whole article.

2013 as the Year of Mindfulness: Critics and Defenders

December 21, 2013 
By Justin Whitaker

Those who have followed ‘mindfulness’ in the Western Buddhist world in recent months have noticed a rising debate between those who find it useful on the one hand and those who question it from a variety of perspectives on the other. This all seems to have blown up with the July 1st article by Ron Purser and David Loy in the Huffington Post titled “Beyond McMindfulness.” There they wrote:

Suddenly mindfulness meditation has become mainstream, making its way into schools, corporations, prisons, and government agencies including the U.S. military. Millions of people are receiving tangible benefits from their mindfulness practice: less stress, better concentration, perhaps a little more empathy. Needless to say, this is an important development to be welcomed — but it has a shadow.
This shadow, they continued, could be found in the facts that:
  1. none of the claims about mindfulness’s system-changing potential (such as making companies kinder or more compassionate) have been empirically tested, and
  2. stripping mindfulness from its (Buddhist) ethical foundations may simply allow it to be used to reinforce greed, aversion, and delusion (the three roots of suffering that Buddhists seek to eliminate).
(I mentioned their piece in a broader discussion of Buddhism in America here, but didn’t get into the arguments themselves)

Christopher Titmus, himself a well known meditation teacher and writer, also wrote a lengthy cautionary article the same month: The Buddha of Mindfulness. A Stress Destruction Programme. While he supported teaching mindfulness for its power to help individuals, he likewise noted that mindfulness, defined as the “paying of attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way” simply “leaves individuals in the company grappling with their stress while ignoring the larger picture of corporate politics as expression of need for change may appear judgemental.” Purser and Loy likened this to past corporate movements that “came to be referred to as ‘cow psychology,’ because contented and docile cows give more milk.”

The implication in both cases seems to be that mindfulness itself is value-neutral, and yet it is being reported (by the media) and sold (by at least some ’mindfulness’ authors, teachers, coaches, and gurus) as good in itself. Titmus writes:

I shook my head in disbelief when I read that mindfulness “almost subversively intends to create much greater transformation toward wise action, social harmony and compassion.”

To such claims, I would respectfully ask: “Show me the evidence of a political party, a single corporation or army unit that has truly transformed itself in terms of action, workers/families’ rights and compassion due to a mindfulness course in the past 30 years of mindfulness programmes.
That quotation comes from author Elisha Goldstein in “The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life” which is endorsed by a veritable who’s who of the mindfulness world (Jack Kornfield, Tim Ryan, Tara Brach, Chade-Meng Tan, Sharon Salzberg, [Patheos contributor] Rick Hanson, and others).

Read the whole interesting article.

Cayte Bosler - Jason Silva Wants Us to Make Time for Awe

According to Robert Plutchik's wheel of emotions, awe is represented as a combination of surprise and fear. According to, awe is defined as follows:
1. an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like: in awe of God; in awe of great political figures.
2. Archaic: power to inspire fear or reverence.
3. Obsolete: fear or dread.

verb (used with object), awed, aw·ing.
4. to inspire with awe.
5. to influence or restrain by awe.
Rudolf Otto is best known for his analysis of our direct experience of the divine that, he believed to be the foundation of all religion. He calls this experience "numinous," and says it has three components.
These are often designated with a Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As mysterium, the numinous is "wholly other"-- entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, as merciful and gracious.
This is the best definition of awe that I have ever found - and it is dependent on what comprises our understanding of the divine or the sacred. For me, it is usually connected to nature, pristine and wild. But it also shows up for me in genuine acts of kindness and compassion between human beings, or even animals.

Given that, I support all efforts to increase our experience of awe.

Make Time for Awe

Novelty and perceptual vastness force us into the present moment, which has health benefits.

Cayte Bosler | Dec 18 2013


Jason Silva is a self-described epiphany junkie. He recently enthused to me about how some movies, for example, manage to capture attention and create a complete, immersive transformation for the viewer.

In his "Shots of Awe" YouTube series, Silva wants to interrupt your mundane existence with "philosophical espresso shots" designed to inspire you to live to the fullest.

It’s easy to get swept away by Silva’s vision of the future: a revolutionary convergence of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. He considers awe to be a pivotal ingredient in making ideas resonate. In his three-minute clips, he hardly takes a breath as he spouts rousing optimism over digitally animated film. Participants "who felt awe were less impatient, more willing to volunteer, and more strongly preferred experiences over material goods."

He may be onto something. A new study published in the journal Psychological Science shows there are residual health benefits to having your mind blown.

"People increasingly report feeling time-starved, which exacts a toll on health and well-being," states the study. Using three experiments, researchers Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker of the Stanford University, and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota, examined whether awe can expand perceptions of time availability. They found that participants "who felt awe, relative to other emotions, felt they had more time available, were less impatient, were more willing to volunteer their time to help others, and more strongly preferred experiences over material goods."

It can be hard to generalize what people consider jaw-dropping, but Vohs says research demonstrates what consistently creates an awesome experience. Travel ranks high. So does gazing at the cosmos on a clear night or watching a sensational film, as well as anytime we encounter massive quantities: colorful tulips in bloom, a bustling market in India, or a stunning school of fish.

Novelty and perceptual vastness forces us into the present moment. The study underscores the importance of cultivating small doses of awe in the everyday to boost life satisfaction.

"Awe is quite threatening in certain ways, and something that is challenging and unwelcome can border on fear," says Vohs, recalling an astonishingly big fish he saw while swimming in the ocean. "It was giant—no big teeth, and it seemed like a gentle soul just floating in the water—but still!"

The study describes awe as an experience of such perceptual expansion that you need new mental maps to deal with the incomprehensibility of it all. Awe is an experience of such perceptual expansion that you need new mental maps to deal with its incomprehensibility.

"The experience of awe is one where you are temporarily off-kilter in terms of your understanding of the world," explains Vohs. "People mostly walk around with a sense of knowing what is going on in the world. They have hypotheses about the way people behave and what might happen; those are pretty air-tight. It is hard to get people to shake from those because that’s just how the brain works. We are always walking around trying to confirm the things we already think. When you are in a state of awe, it puts you off balance and as a consequence, we think people might be ready to learn new things and have some of their assumptions questioned." Rudd, of Stanford, is currently working on a follow-up study to understand just how awe-inspired moments might open a person up to learning new information.

Vohs agrees that videos like Silva's could do the trick to inspire awe. In his study, volunteers watched videos of "awesome" things like nature scenes, whales, and parades, and they reported feeling like they had more time to spare after seeing these images.

"Technologies that capture and control attention, including storytelling, IMAX films, and video games, hijack the perceptual apparatus. They put you into a state of immersion—you lose yourself," says Silva.

He thinks we are predisposed to ignore everyday wonders. "Not being in a state of awe is a way to save energy. It is easier to run on autopilot. It takes energy to blow your mind, but being overwhelmed is worth it. It’s what gives life its luster."

Whether it’s making time for a walk through nature, meditation, or watching an amazing clip, he recommends rituals that elicit awe for a break in the day and an overall healthier lifestyle.

Silva does not shy away from the range of emotions one might have when considering something of magnitude. He grapples with the tinge of sadness in his personal epiphanies, such as the realization that everyone and everything we find beautiful and magnificent will one day end. That’s a theme he explores in his video "Existential Bummer," his video about loss and impermanence.

"We are simultaneously worms and gods," he says, an idea that drives him to produce more creatively. "Man is literally split in two: He has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness, in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground ... to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever."

In the meantime, Vohs wants to continue working to understand how humans derive meaning in the day-to-day.

"Experiences are non-replicable in terms of what kind of an outcome they can give," she says. "So there are reverberations of awe in my current work."

Your At-a-Glance Guide to Psychology in 2013 - BPS Research Digest

From the British Psychological Society's Research Digest, this is their 2013 year in review for psychology - you can also check out their most popular Research Digest posts for the year, as well.

Your at-a-glance guide to psychology in 2013 - Part 1

JAN The year began with fall-out from the final report into the fraud of social psychologist Diederik Stapel. The scale was shocking - 55 journal papers published over 15 years are tainted. The Levelt investigating committee pointed the finger at the research culture in social psychology, but the British Psychological Society's own Social Psychology Section rejected this. So too did the European Association of Social Psychology, who argued that the discipline has actually suffered fewer frauds than other branches of science. In other news, a team of researchers in Canada attracted criticism when they spun their research to suggest that the concept of IQ is a myth. "There are many mysteries about intelligence and the general factor," Professor Richard Haier told The Psychologist. "Now there is a new one – how did this paper get published?"

FEB The first rumours of Obama's richly funded BRAIN initiative began to emerge. A new spin on a modern psychology classic: researchers showed that inattentional blindness can lead experienced radiographers to fail to notice a "gorilla on the lung". A less welcome classic also made an appearance - the left/brain right/brain myth in a report from the RSA that claimed the woes of the Western world are due to our over-dependence on the left-brain hemisphere (some astute criticism here). It was also announced this month that MPs would have access to mental health treatment in Westminster for the first time. Jonah Lehrer apologised for plagiarising the Research Digest. Contradicting all established neuranatomical fact, the Daily Mail described how evil lurks in the brain's "central lobe"!

MARCH Neuroscientists and psychologists began to react to the news of Obama's BRAIN initiative and the similarly ambitious EU Human Brain Project. Psychologists started a campaign against the publication of US psychiatry's re-worked diagnostic code DSM-5. Debate about and reaction to the crisis in social psychology continued - The Center for Open Science was launched by US psychologist Brian Nosek, and The Association for Psychological Science announced a new article format Registered Replication Reports for one its key journals. An important new study found that many mental disorders share the same genetic risk factors.
APRIL After all the questions raised about social psychology, it was the turn of neuroscience as an important analysis suggested that the majority of neuroscience studies are statistically underpowered, likely leading to unreliable findings. Meanwhile a provocative paper claimed that brain scans could predict those offenders likely to return to prison. The Neurocritic took a sceptical look at the results. After all the speculation, the BRAIN Initiative finally launched. Perfectly capturing the zeitgeist, Ferris Jabr for Scientific American wrote a wonderful article about the psychology of reading paper books vs. e-books.
MAY Days before the publication of the new DSM-5 psychiatric diagnostic code, the document received a barrage of criticism from opposite directions. The BPS Division of Clinical Psychology published their concerns, including that the code is too biologically based, while Thomas Insel of the NIMH argued that the code is already out of date because it's not grounded in biological findings. In other news, the UK government's Behavioural Insight Team went part-private; a study about the effects of fist-clenching on memory attracted severe criticism; more controversy bubbled up after the failure to replicate another social priming result; Diederik Stapel was interviewed; two psychologists were voted among the world's top 10 thinker; and Paul Bloom explained how too much empathy can actually lead us to do the wrong thing.
JUNE Many psychologists were among more than 70 signatories to an open letter to the Guardian calling for a new approach to publishing across the life sciences - pre-registered reports in which a study is accepted for publication based on the proposed methodology, prior to the collection of any actual results. The Psychologist reported on the neuroscientist Russell Poldrack who is scanning his own brain three times a week for a year. This is what happened when students and neuroscientists were asked to draw a neuron. A study used fall out from atomic bomb testing to settle the debate over whether adult humans can grow new neurons. Scientists from Germany and Canada created the most detailed map of the brain ever. The Big Brain Atlas is part of the EU's €1-billion Human Brain Project.  Mark Stokes argued there's a lot more to neuroscience than media "neuromania".

Your at-a-glance guide to psychology in 2013 - Part 2

JULY UCL cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott was among the scholars unhappy about the call for the introduction of pre-registered reports in psychology (see June). Walter Boot and colleagues published an important paper highlighting how many control conditions in psychology are inadequate. Another paper claimed that the real-world impact of psychological and social interventions is being squandered by poor practices in the reporting of randomised trials. Doubts were raised about Milgram's classic studies into obedience. Matt Wall debunked neuromarketing. Bethany Brookshire worried that neuroskepticism was becoming excessive and called for neuronuance. Oliver Sacks turned 80 and felt happy about it. "Psychology's most original thinker" Dan Wegner passed away.

AUG A study found that people's sleep is disturbed at full moon, and not because of the light. Harvard psychologist Steve Pinker wrote a magisterial essay on why science, including psychology and neuroscience, is not the enemy of the humanities. The Guardian launched a new psychology blog "Head Quarters" featuring the dream team of Pete Etchells, Molly Crockett, Nathalia Gjersoe and Chris Chambers. UCL cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore was this year's recipient of the prestigious Rosalind Franklin Award from the Royal Society. The RSA's Social Brain Centre launched a new project into spirituality and the brain. New data showed that dementia rates had fallen in the UK. Prisoners' performance on the classic prisoners' dilemma game was measured for the first time. "Super-recognisers" were recruited to spot known criminals at the Notting Hill carnival.

SEPT Scientists created mini brains from stem cells. Hype surrounded a study that purported to show a driving game reversed age-related mental decline. New data showed that England's Improving Access to Psychotherapies programme had failed to stall the county's rising anti-depressant prescription rates. Obama's administration announced plans to create its own "Nudge Unit" modelled on the British government's Behavioural Insight Team. The British Psychological Society's Research Digest marked its tenth anniversary with a series of research-backed self-help posts. Barbara Fredrickson, one of the world’s leading positive psychologists, admitted that a highly influential paper she co-authored in 2005 is fundamentally flawed. David Dobbs wrote a wonderfully inspiring article on the social life of your genes.

OCT Reading fiction boosts your empathy skills, but only if it's literary fiction, a study claimed. Not everyone was impressed. The purpose of Obama's BRAIN initiative became clearer thanks to publication of an interim report. Meanwhile the Guardian interviewed Henry Markram - head of the EU's Human Brain Project. The Society for Personality and Social Psychology published an important remedial report (pdf) for the discipline: "Improving the Dependability of Research in Personality and Social Psychology ..." The Research Digest hosted a Super Week in which we met individuals with psychological super powers. A charity in Wales was criticised for using NLP to treat traumatised soldiers. The science of using brain imaging to decode people's thoughts, minus the hype - a welcome overview from Kerri Smith was published this month.

NOV The World Medical Association announced important changes to its Declaration of Helsinki - an influential ethics code for conducting research with human participants that is followed by many psychology departments and journals. New data suggested that after years of increase, the diagnosis rates for autism in the UK had plateaued. Concerns were raised again about the lack of educational psychologists in Scotland and there were cuts to funding for ed psych services in England, even as demand was on the increase. A new study found that eye contact does not in fact increase persuasion. BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind celebrated its 25th anniversary (the same year that The Psychologist magazine reached the same milestone). A neuroscience journal for kids was launched. A team of over 50 international researchers published an ambitious attempt to replicate 13 existing findings in psychology. Psychology mourned the loss of two stars: cognitive neuroscientist Andy Calder and social psychologist Nalini Ambady.

DEC A twin study attracted controversy after it appeared to show that genes trump schooling and parenting when it comes to children's exam success. The Science Museum opened a new psychology-themed exhibition supported by the British Psychological Society. Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology "explores how mental health conditions have been diagnosed and treated over the past 250 years." A brain imaging study purported to show that men's and women's brains are wired up differently and that this supports gender stereotypes. Not everyone was impressed. Another new study found that stimulating part of the anterior cingulate cortex triggers a kind of "Eye of the Tiger" effect. Finally, this month a US court may have been the first to see brain imaging evidence save a killer from the death penalty. Intriguingly, one of the neuroscientist witnesses for the defence - Ruben Gur - was a co-author on that sex-differences brain wiring study … it's a small world, as they say.