How the Mind Counteracts Offensive Ideas

People react to ideas they find offensive by reasserting familiar structures of meaning.

The human mind is always searching for meaning in the world. It’s one of the reasons we love stories so much: they give meaning to what might otherwise be random events.

From stories emerge characters, context, hopes and dreams, morals even. Using simple structures, stories can communicate complex ideas about the author’s view of the world and how it works, often without the reader’s knowledge.

And when stories embody values in which we don’t believe, we tend to reject them. But, according to a new study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, it goes further than just rejection, psychologically we push back against the challenge, reasserting our own familiar structures of meaning.

In their research Proulx et al. (2010) used two stories that illustrate divergent views of the world to explore how people react to offensive ideas.

The Tortoise and the Hare

The first story was Aesop’s fable The Tortoise and the Hare. I’m sure you know it (if not, it’s here) so I’ll cut straight to one of its morals: if you keep plugging away at something, like the tortoise, you’ll eventually get there, even if you’re obviously outmatched by those around you.

Another interpretation is that the hare loses the race because he is overconfident. Either way, both the hare and tortoise get what they deserve based on how they behave. This is the way we like to think the world works: if you put in the effort, you’ll get the reward. If not, you won’t. The lazy, overconfident hare always loses, right?

An Imperial Message

Quite a different moral comes from the second piece the researchers used: a (very) short story by Franz Kafka called ‘An Imperial Message’. In this story a herald, sent out by the Emperor, is trying to deliver an important message to you. But although he is strong and determined, no matter how hard he tries, he will never deliver it (you can read the full story here).

Contrary to Aesop’s fable, Kafka is reminding us that effort, diligence and enthusiasm are often not rewarded. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if we do or say the right things, we won’t get what we want.

In many ways Kafka’s story is just as true as Aesop’s fable, but it is a much less palatable truth. Aesop’s fable seems to make sense to us while Kafka’s story doesn’t, it feels empty and absurd. Consequently we’d much rather hold on to Aesop’s fable than we would Kafka’s depressing tale.

Unconsciously threatening

These two stories were used by Proulx et al. to test how people reacted firstly to a safe, reassuring story and, secondly, to a story that contains a threat to most people’s view of the world. They thought that in response to Kafka’s story people would be unconsciously motivated to reaffirm the things in which they do believe. In their first experiment the researchers used measures of participant’s cultural identity to test this affirmation.

Twenty-six participants were given Aesop’s advert for hard work and another 26 were given Kafka’s more pessimistic tale. As predicted participants who read Kafka’s story perceived it as a threat to the way they viewed the world. They reacted to this threat by affirming their cultural identities more strongly than those who had read Aesop’s fable, which didn’t challenge their world-view.

In other words the participants in this study were pushing back against Kafka’s story by reaffirming their cultural identity.

Absurd comedy

In two more studies Proulx et al. addressed a couple of criticisms of their first study: that participants might have found Kafka’s story (1) too unfair and (2) too unfamiliar. So, in a second study they used a description of a Monty Python sketch which participants weren’t told was supposed to be a joke. In the third study they used Magritte’s famous absurdist painting of a bowler-hatted gentleman with a big green apple in front of his face.

The idea of using absurdist stimuli like Monty Python and the Magritte painting is that, like Kafka’s short story, they challenge our settled perceptions of the world.

The research backed up this idea. Both Python and Magritte produced the same counter-reaction in people, leading them to restate values in which they believed. Similar but non-absurd stimuli didn’t have the same effect.

Instead of using cultural identity, though, the researchers measured notions of justice and need for structure. Participants reacted to the meaning threat implicit in Python by handing out a larger notional punishment to a lawbreaker. Here the threat of the absurd caused participants to re-affirm their belief in justice.

In the third study participants reacted to the meaning threat of the Magritte painting by expressing a greater need for structure. They were suddenly craving meaning; something, anything that makes sense, instead of this bowler-hatted man with an apple in front of his face.

Absurd truth

What this research underlines is that we push back against threats to our world-views by reasserting structures of meaning with which we are comfortable.

The researchers measured cultural identities, ideas of justice and a generalized yearning for meaning, but they probably would have found the same results in many other areas, such as politics, religion or any other strongly held set of beliefs.

When there’s a challenge to our established world-view, whether from the absurd, the unexpected, the unpalatable, the confusing or the unknown, we experience a psychological force pushing back, trying to re-assert the things we feel are safe, comfortable and familiar. That’s a shame because stories like Kafka’s contain truths we’d do well to heed.

This article was originally published at: PsyBlog http://www.spring.org.uk/

LOW VITAMIN D LINKED TO SCHIZOPHRENIA

There may be a link between sunlight, vitamin D and children’s brain development.
Content provided by Timothy McDonald, ABC Science

THE GIST

  • Babies born with low vitamin D levels are shown to be twice as likely to develop schizophrenia.
  • The finding may mean there could be a way to prevent cases of the disease.
  • Scientists caution more research needs to be done to confirm the link.

Babies born with low vitamin D levels are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia later in life, researchers from the Queensland Brain Institute have found.

But the researchers say the good news from the study is that it suggests it may be possible to prevent schizophrenia.

John McGrath from the Queensland Brain Institute says there have been suggestions for some time that there may be a link between sunlight, vitamin D and brain development. He says it is increasingly clear children with low vitamin D levels are more likely to develop schizophrenia.

“For the babies who had very low vitamin D, their risk was about twice as high as those babies who had optimal vitamin D,” said McGrath.

“But the amazing thing was that the study that was based in Denmark, where low vitamin D is quite common, we found that if vitamin D is linked to schizophrenia our statistics suggest that it could explain about 40 percent of all schizophrenias. That’s a much bigger effect than we’re used to seeing in schizophrenia research.”

While the simplest way to get enough vitamin D is to spend more time in the sun, it remains unclear whether there are fewer cases of schizophrenia in a country like Australia which sees a lot more sunlight.

“We don’t have high-quality data on that, but some statistics suggest we do have slightly lower incidences and prevalence of schizophrenia,” said McGrath.

“Like many other diseases, like multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia tends to be more common in places further away from the equator. And if you’re born in winter and spring you tend to have a slightly increased risk of schizophrenia also, and that was one of the original pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that led us to wonder maybe vitamin D could be implicated.”

Ian Hickie from the Brain and Mind Research Institute in Sydney says he is not surprised by the results, however he says more research is needed.

“So the real acid test is going to be trying to lift vitamin D levels in pregnant women and newborns and see whether there’s an effect on later schizophrenia,” said Hickie. “Or even in fact, looking at providing higher levels of vitamin D by vitamin D supplementation in other ways later in life and particularly childhood and the teenage years, to see whether you might reduce the risk of onset of schizophrenia.”

Vitamin D supplements may prove an effective way to prevent schizophrenia. But McGrath agrees there is only a statistical link at the moment and that does not prove vitamin D deficiencies are to blame for schizophrenia.

“Because the treatment and the outcome can be separated by about 20, 30 years, we need to treat pregnant women and then wait for their offspring to develop schizophrenia,” he said. “It will be a very challenging study to do.”

It could be decades before scientists know for sure.

“But medical research tends to move at a steady pace. I think the other thing is that there are many other studies suggesting that vitamin D is good for baby’s bone health,” McGrath said.

“So it may well be that recommendations will be made to women to increase their vitamin D status for more obvious outcomes, like baby’s rickets for example. If that happened then it may well be that schizophrenia would start to fall in decades to come.”

But Hickie warns against spending too much time in the sun to get more vitamin D because that could increase the risk of skin cancer.

“Rates of melanoma and skin cancer are obviously very high in our country and directly related to sun exposure, particularly in childhood,” he said.

“So on the one hand we need to be careful about over exposure to sunlight, on the other hand it may well be that in some places, or in some individuals, low levels of vitamin D may constitute a risk factor, particularly in pregnancy and therefore affecting the rates of vitamin D in newborn children.”

“So this is one of the issues that we’re going to need to look at clearly. I don’t think it means that everyone should be rushing out into the sun and necessarily putting themselves at risk of other sun-related cancers.”

Even if vitamin D does make a difference, there are several other factors that may play a part.

A predisposition to the illness can run in families, chemical imbalances in the brain may be responsible and stressful events are often thought to play a role in the onset of the schizophrenia.

This article was originally posted at Discovery.com: http://news.discovery.com/human/vitamin-d-schizophrenia.html#mkcpgn=hknws1

Men More Susceptible to Memory Decline

Memory Loss in Men
Alzheimer's in Men

Men are more susceptible than women to memory problems in old age, according to a new study.

Mild cognitive impairment, a condition in which people have problems with memory or thinking beyond that explained by normal aging, can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. The new research, published Sept. 7 in the journal Neurology, found that mild cognitive impairment is 1.5 times more common in men than women.

“This is the first study conducted among community-dwelling persons to find a higher prevalence of MCI in men,” said study researcher Ronald Petersen, the director of Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in Rochester, Minn. “If these results are confirmed in other studies, it may suggest that factors related to gender play a role in the disease. For example, men may experience cognitive decline earlier in life but more gradually, whereas women may transition from normal memory directly to dementia at a later age but more quickly.”

Another recent study revealed that reading and other brain exercises could delay cognitive decline, but once the outward signs of dementia hit, it seems to progress faster than if it hadn’t been postponed.

In the new study, Peterson and his colleagues interviewed 2,050 people ages 70 to 89 about their memory and their medical history. They also tested the participants on their memory and thinking skills.

Nearly 14 percent of those tested had mild cognitive impairment. Another 10 percent had dementia, a loss of cognitive function most often caused by Alzheimer’s disease. When split up by gender, 19 percent of men had mild cognitive impairment compared with 14 percent of women.

People in the study with low education levels and those who were never married had higher rates of mild cognitive impairment than those who were married or highly educated.

Besides uncovering a gender disparity in memory, Petersen said, the finding that almost a quarter of elderly people have memory problems or dementia highlights the need for new treatments.

Story originally posted on LiveScience at: http://www.livescience.com/culture/men-memory-decline-aging-effects-100906.html
By Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer

Is It Time to Give Hallucinogenic Drugs for Medical Use Another Try?

Magic Mushrooms
The hallucinogenic compound found in psilocybin mushrooms like these is getting a fresh look as a medicine to help patients cope with terminal illness.

Hallucinogen Shows Promise In Helping Cancer Patients Cope

Some researchers in California make that case in a study of a dozen patients with advance cancer. The patients, 11 women and 1 man, received a low dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms” in one session and a placebo, consisting of water and the B vitamin niacin, which causes flushing, in another.

On a couple of measures of mental health, the patients showed less anxiety months after treatment and a big improvement in mood even a half-year after a single psychedelic session.

To be sure, this study, billed as a pilot test, had some flaws, most notably that each patient served as his or her own point of comparison, or control. And the researchers concede that it was pretty much impossible for the patients not to know pretty quickly whether they were getting the drug or the dummy medicine in a given session.

Also, among the patients, all volunteers, eight had previously taken hallucinogenic drugs. Four of them had tried such drugs decades before the experiment.

Still, nobody had a bad trip, the researchers said, and there was no evidence of physical or mental harm during the study, the first since the 1970s to explore the possible usefulness of psychedelic drugs in helping seriously ill patients cope with anxiety and the end of life.

The results were just published online by the Archives of General Psychiatry.

The scientists conclude the findings are strong enough to support further research. And there are some other studies already under way, including one at New York University that aims to enroll 32 patients.

One of the funders of the pilot study and the bigger one at NYT is the Heffter Research Institute, a nonprofit that specializes in the science of hallucinogenic drugs.

Article originally posted at: Npr.org: http://n.pr/a4N9lK