Alcohol May Actually Help Problem Solving Skills

In a recent study, scientists observed that men who ingested two pints of beer or two glasses of wine before tackling brain teasers showed quicker times in providing correct answers. This may lead to a better understanding if alcohol actually is able to enhance an individual’s problem solving skills.

The study found that aside from being quicker in solving brain teasers, they got more questions right compared to others who answered the same test while sober. This goes against the grain of traditional wisdom regarding the effect of alcohol on analytical thinking and rational thought.

The lead author of the study, Professor Jennifer Wiley of the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that alcohol may actually enhance creative problem solving skills through a reduction of the mind’s working memory capacity, allowing for greater concentration on one specific topic at a time.

According to Professor Wiley, “Working memory capacity is considered the ability to control one’s attention. It’s the ability to remember one thing while you’re thinking about something else.”

While this study demonstrating alcohol’s ability to enhance creative problem solving, other research counteracted this as increased working memory capacity leads to better analytic and problem solving abilities. Other research includes a current study recently published at the journal Consciousness and Cognition, where it found individuals drinking alcohol and registering 0.07 blood alcohol level or higher were worse at completing problems requiring attention control, but registered better with creative problem solving tests.

With this discovery, participants registering BAC levels of 0.07 or higher were able to solve 40 percent more problems than their sober counterparts, taking just 12 seconds to complete the tasks compared to 15.5 seconds for teetotalers.

Wiley noted caution on the results as it was too focused and may limit the possibilities to a broader more flexible state of attention that may prove helpful to creative solutions to eventually emerge. She added, “We have this assumption, that being able to focus on one part of  a problem or having lot of expertise is better for problem solving. But that’s not necessarily true. Innovation may happen when people are not so focused. Sometimes it’s good to be distracted.”

Another limitation is the study’s application to individuals having a few drinks and not those that drink to get drunk. She added, “The bottom line is what we think being too focused can blind you to novel possibilities and a broader, more flexible state of attention is needed for creative solutions to emerge.”

Other experts view that the findings make sense, they also noted that sleep would also be beneficial for creativity enhancement. Past research would show that individuals that were allowed to sleep after being given a problem were more likely to wake up with a creative solution compared to others who kept awake.

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Lack of Sleep Related to High Anxiety

The latest technologies have provided scientists with evidence of how sleep deprivation leads to anxiety. These investigators have said that their findings demonstrate increased sleep loss exaggerates the level of anxiety for upcoming social events. This overreaction happens most often to those individuals who are already suffering from high anxiety, making them even more vulnerable.

There are two common features of anxiety disorders: sleep loss and amplified emotional response. With these findings, it is suggested that these features may not be independent but might actually be a causal relationship.

The study was conducted at the University of California Berkeley campus, where researchers used brain scanning techniques on eighteen healthy adults in two separate groups. One group had tests after a normal night’s sleep while the second group had theirs after a night of sleep deprivation. In both sessions, participants were exposed to an emotional task that had a period of anticipating potentially negative experience through an unpleasant visual image or a potentially benign experience or neutral visual image.

In functional MRI scans, it showed that sleep deprivation was amplified with the build up of anticipatory activity in the embedded emotional centers of the brain, most especially the amygdala, where responses to negative and unpleasant experiences were found. It was also found that in many emotional centers of the brain, sleep deprivation triggered a sixty percent increase in anticipatory reactions. The study further found that the effect of sleep deprivation was related to how naturally anxious an individual is in their natural settings.

The study concluded that individuals who were more anxious also showed the biggest vulnerability to the aggravating effects of sleep deprivation. The result further suggests that anxiety has a significant effect in elevating the emotional dysfunction and risk attributable mainly to lack of sleep.

According to the lead author of the study, Andrea Goldstein, “Anticipation is a fundamental brain process, a common survival mechanism across numerous species. Our results suggest that just one night of sleep loss significantly alters the optimal functioning of this essential brain process, especially among anxious individuals. This is perhaps never more relevant considering the continued erosion of sleep time that continues to occur across society.”

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Your Brain’s Responses to Caressing

Simple acts such as the nuzzling of the neck, the stroking of the wrist, or the brushing of the knee can signify either a tender loving touch or a highly demeaning action, depending on who’s doing the touching. These seemingly innocuous actions were recently studied by neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology to determine the connection between touch and emotion.

The scientists from Caltech have found that the association of touch and emotion starts at the primary somatosensory cortex of the brain. This is a region of the brain that was previously thought to only provide responses to the basic touch and not the emotional attachments associated with the touch. These findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research team measured the brain activity through heterosexual males laying in front of an MRI scanner. Each individual’s leg was caressed under two different conditions. The first condition exhibited a video of an attractive female bending down to caress them while the second condition showed a video of a masculine man doing the very same action. The participants indicated that they felt pleasure when the touch was perceived to come from the woman while they felt averse when the touch came from the man, despite the two touches being performed identically. This sensation was backed up when the experiences was related to the measured activity of the participant’s somatosensory cortex under the MRI.

According to Michael Spezio, a visiting associate at Caltech who also is an assistant professor of psychology at Scripps College in Claremont, “We demonstrated for the first time that the primary somatosensory cortex – the brain region encoding basic touch properties such as how rough or smooth an object is – also is sensitive to the social meaning of a touch.”

He further added, “It was generally thought that there are separate brain pathways for how we process the physical aspects of touch on the skin and for how we interpret that touch emotionally – that is, whatever we feel it as pleasant, unpleasant, desired or repulsive. Our study shows that, to the contrary, emotion is involved at the primary stages of social touch.”

Unknown to the subjects, the actual caress on their leg was exactly the same in both scenarios, and came from a woman. The touch felt different, according to the participants, when they had a well-founded belief that a man did the touching and not a woman.

The research was conducted at the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, to which Bren Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center Ralph Adolphs said, “The primary somatosensory cortex responded more to the ‘female’ touch than to the ‘male’ touch condition, even while subjects were only viewing a video showing a person approach their leg. We see responses in the part of the brain though to process only basic touch that were elicited entirely by the emotional significance of social touch prior to the touch itself, simply in anticipation of the caress that our participants would receive.”

The study was headed by spouses Valeria Gozzola and Christian Keysers, who were visiting professors at Caltech from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
According to Gazzola, “Intuitively, we all believe that when we are touched by someone, we first objectively perceive the physical properties of the touch – its speed, its gentleness, the roughness of the skin. Only thereafter, in a separable second step based on who touched us, do we believe we value this more or less.”

She added that the experiment showed that the two-step vision is incorrect, just for separation between brain regions as many believe that touching distorts the objective representation of the kind of touch done on the skin.

Keysers added, “Nothing in our brain is truly objective. Our perception is deeply and pervasively shaped by how we feel about the things we perceive.”
The practical implication of these findings would be reshaping social responses to touch in people stricken with autism. Another avenue would be the use of film or virtual reality experience to help heal victims of sexual abuse, physical touch and torture, as gentle touch causes cringing in their victims. Other possibilities include exploration of sensory pathway development in infants or children in general.

Spezio says, “Now that we have clear evidence that primary somatosensory cortex encodes emotional significance of touch, it may be possible to work with early sensory pathways to help children with autism respond more positively to the gently touch of their parents and siblings.”

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How Suggestion Influences Behavior

Objects such as a lucky rabbit’s foot, a glass of wine, and a pill can all influence our perceptions and our behaviors. In this way, suggestion has the power affect one’s performance on a test, behavior at a dinner party, or the effects of a migraine.

A recent article penned by psychological scientists Maryanne Garry and Robert Michael of the Victoria School of Wellington in cooperation with Irving Kirsch of the Harvard Medical School and Plymouth University discussed the phenomenon of suggestion through examination of the relationship between suggestion, cognition and behavior. The article has been published in the June issue of Current Direction in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The two main authors studied the effects of suggestion on cognition and behavior. For his part, Kirsch focused on the effect of suggestion on clinical psychology. Garry delved into the effects of suggestion on human memory through funding from the Marsden Fund of New Zealand. According to Garry, “We realized that the effects of suggestion are wider and often more surprising than many people might otherwise think.”

In many studies, research showed that deliberate suggestion can influence how people perform on learning and memory tasks, the products of choice and their response to supplements and medicines. This is commonly called the “placebo effect.”

This begs the question, how powerful and all-encompassing an effect suggestion have on an individual’s life? Individuals anticipate different responses in various situations, and these expectations have an equivalent automatic response that influence the outcome expected. Thus, the anticipation of a specific outcome and the consequent thoughts and actions assist in bringing that outcome to reality. (A self-fulfilling prophecy, as it were).

For instance, a shy individual may expect alcohol to give them liquid courage in a cocktail party. While some may blame the wine as doing the talking, it is clear that the expectations of the effect of the wine played a major role in becoming the life of the party.

It is not the deliberate suggestion which influences thoughts and behaviors, as even second-hand or non-deliberate suggestions can provide the same effect. The article states that simple observation of individuals can help them feel special, a manifestation of the Hawthorne Effect. This makes individuals work better and harder, which is a worrisome effect according to Garry. He says, “Because although we might then give credit to some new drug or treatment, we don’t realize that we are the ones who are actually wielding the influence.”

Garry further elevates the importance of unintentional suggestion and its important implications, saying, “In the scientific community, we need to be aware of – and control for – the suggestions we communicate to subjects. Recent research suggests that some of psychological science’s most intriguing findings may be driven, at least in part by suggestion and expectations. For example, a scientist who knows what the hypothesis of an experiment is might unwittingly lead subjects to produce the hypothesized effect – for reasons that have nothing to do with the experiment itself.”

The unintentional effects of suggestion aren’t just found in the laboratory as they are present in many real world situations such as medicine, education and criminal justice. Current research has established evidence for the phenomenon of suggestion but there is still a lot to learn about the suggestion, cognition and behavior. The authors pointed out, researchers still do not understand the boundaries and limitations of these effects.

As Garry points out, “If a ‘real’ treatment and a ‘suggestion’ lead to a similar outcome, what differentiates between the two? If we can harness the power of suggestion, we can improve people’s lives.”

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Daydreaming for Creativity

Daydreaming, “the idle mind”, is said to be the playground of the devil. Now, recent studies have found that this seemingly innocuous activity plays a vital function of the psyche. It has been found that daydreaming is a good time for creativity exercises and “dress-rehearsals” for socialization skills. To some extent, this may even become the backbone of one’s consciousness.

We tend to have a negative conception of Daydreaming, stemming from when we were school-children. In school, children are reprimanded or teased for letting their imaginations wander instead of focusing on their course material. But is it really such a bad thing?

According to neurologist Marcus Raichle of Washington University in St. Louis, “Everybody does it, they know they do it, and it’s easy for people to relate to.” Many experts say that individuals spend between fifteen and fifty percent of waking hours doing just that, daydreaming. This has been scientifically defined as straying from focused tasks or external stimuli, leading to focus on inner thoughts, fantasies and feelings. This is characterized by the brain going into assimilation of external stimuli to just internal stimuli, triggering the activity of a whole neural network dedicated to facts already known and imagining possibilities in the future.

Old school psychology said that daydreaming was not just a waste of time but can also lead to one form of insanity, specifically neurosis. As a result, there is even a whole line of medication has been prescribed to combat this activity. But modern studies are flipping this notion on its head, showing that daydreaming may be essential to our brain function and mental well-being.

Only a very few studies have been made, but from the looks of it, this is a healthy way for individuals to induce creativity and enhance socialization skills. Besides, it’s a safe way to while away the time.

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A Fascinating Ted Talk on Time

There are hundreds of amazing Ted talks out there; it’s hard to choose which ones to share. This is a fascinating talk by Philip Zimbardo on time perspective. (He actually mentions the marshmallow test here, too, which I didn’t realize until I watched it again). Anyway, enjoy:

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