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Some of the Latest Psychological Research

Although the focus of this site is not on psychology, but on how to use the brain more effectively, psychological research is not irrelevant to that goal. So with that in mind I visited various medical and scientific journals and magazines (or at least their online versions to discover and report on what's been going on. Here's what I found...

Politics is Nasty

It seems that we are less empathetic to other's suffering if their politics disagree with our own, according to a study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

As reported on Science Daily;

We can look beyond someone having a different gender or being from a different country, but if you're a Democrat and someone else is a Republican, that person seems extremely different. "Political values are emotionally charged. People get really fired up," says Ed O'Brien of the University of Michigan, who cowrote the study with Phoebe C. Ellsworth.

Researchers chose subjects who were out in the cold of winter waiting for a bus. They had them read a story about a man or woman getting lost without food, water, or proper clothing when hiking in the winter. The lead character in the story was also described as "either a left-wing, pro-gay rights Democrat or a Republican proponent of traditional marriage."

Subjects then answered a series of questions about how cold, hungry or thirsty they thought the hiker was, and about their own political views as well. Another group of subjects, who were in a warm indoor setting, were given the same task. From Science Daily:

"People who had the same politics as the fictional hiker judged the hiker to be cold like them, as previous research predicts. But if the hiker had different politics, subjects weren't affected by their strong feelings; cold outdoor participants didn't think the dissimilar hiker was any colder than did warm indoor participants."

I would like to add a thought here: If, because of our political differences, we cannot help but be biased against having empathy for a man lost in winter, what does this suggest about our ability to rationally discuss anything with those of differing political opinions? Biases almost certainly enter even the selecting of what to believe as facts depending on the source we learn them from.

Foxhole Atheists

You may have heard the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, meaning they all turn to God when in fear of death. Well, many atheists would dispute that, and certainly many go through great danger and remain non-believers until death. But recent research suggests that despite their conscious beliefs on the matter, atheists become unconsciously more receptive to religious belief when they are thinking about death.

Researchers first tested conscious attitudes after "death priming," which involved having participants (except those in the control group) write about their own death. For religious people this strengthened their beliefs. For atheists the opposite happened; they became even more skeptical of religious ideas. But when unconscious attitudes were measured there was a different effect. According to an article in Science Daily;

The techniques used to study unconscious beliefs include measuring the speed with which participants can affirm or deny the existence of God and other religious entities. After being primed by thoughts of death, religious participants were faster to press a button to affirm God's existence, but non-religious participants were slower to press a button denying God's existence.

At some level atheists apparently became less confident in their disbelief when thinking about death. Fear of death seems to prompt the seeking of comfort in the possibility of an afterlife and/or in other religious beliefs, even if it only does so at an unconscious level.

When Are We Most Creative?

You might think you are most creative when you are most alert and awake, but some psychological research suggest otherwise. According to an article in Scientific American;

A recent study by Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks suggests that innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best, at least with respect to our circadian rhythms...

Numerous studies have demonstrated that our best performance on challenging, attention-demanding tasks - like studying in the midst of distraction - occurs at our peak time of day...

Insight problems involve thinking outside the box. This is where susceptibility to “distraction” can be of benefit. At off-peak times we are less focused, and may consider a broader range of information. This wider scope gives us access to more alternatives and diverse interpretations, thus fostering innovation and insight. Indeed, Wieth and Zacks found that participants were more successful in solving insight problems when tested at their non-optimal times.

Other research has resulted in similar findings.

Apart from the psychological research, there is personal experience to confirm this. many of us come upon our most creative ideas when sleepy or day dreaming. The use of brainwave entrainment recordings to put one in an "alpha" brainwave state helps some people become more creative as well. Normally you have brainwaves predominantly in the alpha range (8 to 14 hertz) as you relax and close your eyes--often just before sleep.


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