TAG: "Psychology"

Even when we’re resting, our brains are preparing us to be social

UCLA research helps resolve a nearly 20-year-old mystery.

Researchers asked people to to judge whether photo captions — some focusing on a mental state, others on a physical description — accurately described the images. (Image courtesy of Robert Spunt)

By Stuart Wolpert, UCLA

A new study by UCLA neuroscientists sheds light on why Facebook is such a popular diversion for people who feel like taking a break. Their research shows that even during quiet moments, our brains are preparing us to be socially connected to other people.

“The brain has a major system that seems predisposed to get us ready to be social in our spare moments,” said Matthew Lieberman, a UCLA professor of psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. “The social nature of our brains is biologically based.”

The research helps resolve a nearly 20-year-old mystery. Neuroscientists have known since the 1990s that the brain includes a network of regions that seems to be most active during periods of rest — this became apparent when they examined brain scans of people who were attempting to answer challenging questions during scientific experiments and noticed that certain areas of the brain became unusually active during the periods in between the problem-solving. But until now, scientists knew very little about what purpose is served by the brain’s activity during those interludes.

The UCLA research, published in the June print edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, shows that during quiet moments, the brain is preparing to focus on the minds of other people — or to “see the world through a social lens,” said Lieberman, the study’s senior author.

In experiments at UCLA’s Ahmanson–Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, the researchers showed photos with captions to 21 people, and tracked their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Most of the photos showed people performing actions in a social setting and expressing a certain emotion. In one set of 40 photographs, images were paired with captions that reflected the person’s mental state — “He is feeling bored” or “She is expressing self-doubt,” for example. The second set of photos had identical images, but with captions that merely described what the person was doing — “He is resting his head” or “She is looking to her side.” And a third set of images depicted a number accompanied by a simple mathematical equation — for example, “10: 18-8.”

Participants were asked to judge whether the captions accurately expressed what the images showed. Among the findings:

  • The same regions of the brain that were active during the brief times that subjects were not looking at photos also were active when the participants were considering the photos with captions about people’s emotions. But those areas of the brain were not active when the participants were viewing the cards with captions about the person’s physical activity and those with the math equations.
  • Sometimes, a part of the brain called the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex was more active during the rest period immediately before participants were asked to look at photos. In those cases, the participants made significantly faster judgments if the next photo they saw presented a statement about the person’s mental state.
  • There was no relation between activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex during rest and the speed of people’s decision-making on the questions involving math equations or the photographs with physical descriptions.
  • Study participants who were found to have traits characteristic of autism spectrum disorders — the researchers identified them using questionnaires administered prior to the brain scans — had less brain activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex during periods of rest and were slower to judge the mental state of people in the photographs. Those with the least amount of dorsomedial prefrontal cortex activity were 10 percent slower than those with the most.

The difference in decision-making speed that the researchers observed could have a significant effect in people’s everyday lives, Lieberman said. “It might not seem like a huge advantage, but being 10 percent faster, time after time, in each conversation will allow a person to be much better prepared and in control of their social lives.”

Lieberman, author of the best-selling book “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect,” describes the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex as the “CEO of the social brain.” It’s part of a network in the brain that turns on when we dream and during periods of rest, in addition to when we explicitly think about other people, he said.

► Watch: Lieberman’s September 2013 TEDx talk on the social brain

Based on activity in that region of the brain when the study participants were resting, researchers could accurately predict how quickly the participants would perform the next task. When the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex was highly active before participants saw a photo with a description of a mental state, they were faster in making their judgment; when the region was only slightly active, their decision-making was slower. The phenomenon applied equally among men and women.

“It’s the same photograph; the only thing that differs is whether the caption is mind-focused or body-focused,” said lead author Robert Spunt, who conducted the research when he was a UCLA doctoral student in psychology and is now a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech. “It’s remarkable.”

Lieberman said that people who struggle to read social cues in other people’s facial expressions might be able to improve this skill with practice, and he is conducting additional research to examine whether certain kinds of practice at social thinking can help improve people’s social abilities more broadly.

The findings suggest that the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex might turn on during dreams and rest in order to process our recent social experiences and update our assumptions and understanding of the social world, Lieberman said.

“It is getting us ready to see the world socially in terms of other people’s thoughts, feelings and goals,” he said. “That indicates it is important; the brain doesn’t just turn systems on. We walk around with our brain trying to reset itself to start thinking about other minds.”

So although Facebook might not have been designed with the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex in mind, the social network is very much in sync with how our brains are wired.

“When I want to take a break from work, the brain network that comes on is the same network we use when we’re looking through our Facebook timeline and seeing what our friends are up to,” said Lieberman, one of the founders of the field of study known as social cognitive neuroscience. “That’s what our brain wants to do, especially when we take a break from work that requires other brain networks.”

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Psychotic hallucinations, delusions rarely precede violence

UC Berkeley study reviews 305 violent incidents in U.S.; 12 percent preceded by psychosis.

By Yasmin Anwar, UC Berkeley

Mass shootings at the hands of unhinged loners – such as those in Aurora, Colorado; Santa Barbara, California; and Newtown, Connecticut – perpetuate a commonly held belief that mental illness triggers violent crimes.

But a new study from UC Berkeley shows that hallucinations and delusions associated with psychiatric disorders seldom foreshadow acts of aggression.

In a painstaking review of 305 violent incidents in the United States, the researchers found that only 12 percent were preceded by psychosis. While numerous studies have found that brutality and bloodshed are more likely to be sparked by anger, access to firearms and substance abuse, this latest analysis is the first to look at the regularity of psychosis-induced violence among the mentally ill.

The results, recently reported in the online edition of the journal Clinical Psychological Science, challenge the media-fueled stereotype of homicidal mayhem.

“High-profile mass shootings capture public attention and increase vigilance of people with mental illness. But our findings clearly show that psychosis rarely leads directly to violence,” said study lead author Jennifer Skeem, a clinical psychologist and associate dean of research at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare.

Skeem and fellow researchers at the University of Virginia and Columbia University focused on the most violent patients tracked in the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment study, a major 1998 analysis of more than 1,100 offenders who had been discharged from psychiatric facilities.

Specifically, the researchers looked at a subgroup of 100 high-risk patients, who had been involved in two or more violent incidents in the year after they were discharged from a psychiatric facility, to establish their mental states at the time they committed acts of violence.

“We wanted to examine the small group of people with repeated violence and see how consistently these violent incidents were caused by hallucinations and delusions,” Skeem said.

In addition to reviewing records, they interviewed former patients about what they were thinking and feeling immediately before they engaged in violence, and sought the perspectives of their friends and family members. The results revealed that psychosis preceded only 12 percent of the violent acts they committed following their release. Moreover, while psychosis drove one violent incident, it was rarely implicated in subsequent ones, the study found.

The study defines violence as battery resulting in physical injury, sexual assault, and assaults or threats with a weapon. Mental illnesses ranged from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to severe anxiety and depression.

While mass shootings account for a fraction of U.S. gun deaths, each one can influence public policy. For example, the 2014 shooting spree in Isla Vista near Santa Barbara, in which 24-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people, spurred the U.S. House of Representatives to pass an amendment to boost funding to add more mental health records to the nation’s background check system for firearm purchases.

And, after the 2013 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, in which 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, 20 children and six school staff members, New York passed the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, which requires mental health professionals to report clients who could harm themselves or others so those names can be matched against a gun permit database.

Meanwhile, a murder trial is currently under way for 27-year-old James Holmes, who opened fire on a “Batman” movie audience in Aurora in 2012, killing 12. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. In the wake of that mass shooting, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill allocating $20 million for an expansion of mental health services, including walk-in crisis centers and a 24-hour hotline. That bill also created a task force to look at strengthening existing laws for involuntary commitment for mental health treatment.

Mental health professionals and advocates warn that these high-profile cases perpetuate the stigma of mental illness, and keep people who are suffering from psychiatric disorders from disclosing their condition and seeking help. In fact, they say, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than vice versa.

A study published in February in the American Journal of Public Health found that fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness, and that the mentally ill are far more likely than the average person to be the victims of violent crime.

“None of this detracts from the message that people with mental illness need access to psychiatric services,” Skeem said. “But it’s important to remember that risk factors for violence – such as substance abuse, childhood maltreatment, neighborhood disadvantage – are mostly shared by people with and without mental illness, and that’s what we should be focused on if maximizing public safety is our goal.”

Other co-authors and researchers on the study are Patrick Kennealy of the University of South Florida, John Monahan of the University of Virginia, Gillian Peterson of Metropolitan State University and Paul Appelbaum of Columbia University.

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85 college students tried to draw the Apple logo from memory — 84 failed

We don’t notice much of what we see, UCLA psychology study indicates.

Examples of the incorrect logos shown in the study. The actual Apple logo, which is not pictured here, resembles the bottom middle panel, but with the leaf facing the other way.

By Stuart Wolpert, UCLA

“You can observe a lot just by watching.” 
– Yogi Berra

Could you draw the ubiquitous Apple computer logo from memory? Probably not, as it turns out.

In a new study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, UCLA psychologists found that almost none of their subjects could draw the logo correctly from memory. Out of 85 UCLA undergraduate students, only one correctly reproduced the Apple logo when asked to draw it on a blank sheet of paper. Fewer than half the students correctly identified the actual logo when they were shown it among a number of similar logos with slightly altered features.

Among the participants were 52 Apple users, 10 PC users and 23 students who used both Apple and PC products — but the findings did not differ between Apple and PC users.

How can this be, given that logos are designed to be simple, memorable and visually distinctive, and Apple’s logo is among the world’s most recognizable?

“People had trouble picking out the correct logo even when it was right in front of them,” said Alan Castel, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA and senior author of the study, who showed in 2012 that most people did not know the location of a bright red fire extinguisher near their office, even though they had walked by it hundreds or thousands of times.

An explanation may be that our brains have learned it is not important to remember specific details. An efficient memory system does not need to store the details of a corporate logo, except perhaps to distinguish counterfeit products, the researchers concluded.

Earlier studies have shown that most people have a poor memory for other items they encounter daily or almost daily, including computer keyboards (even skilled typists have difficulty describing a standard keyboard), pennies and road signs.

In the new study, participants were asked how well they would be able to draw the Apple logo before being asked to draw it.

“There was a striking discrepancy between participants’ confidence prior to drawing the logo and how well they performed on the task,” Castel said. “People’s memory, even for extremely common objects, is much poorer than they believe it to be.”

Can you recognize the correct logo? See how you do.

Adam Blake, a UCLA graduate student in Castel’s laboratory, is the study’s lead author. Meenely Nazarian, a former UCLA undergraduate, is a co-author.

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ADHD plus childhood trauma heightens risk for self-harm, suicide

UC Berkeley study points to significance of environmental factors.

By Yasmin Anwar, UC Berkeley

Young women with ADHD who have been exposed to abuse, neglect or other traumas in childhood and adolescence are at greater risk for self-injury, eating disorders and suicide than those with ADHD who were not mistreated in early youth, according to new research from UC Berkeley.

The findings, just reported in the journal Development and Psychopathology, add to a growing body of evidence that environmental factors, including maltreatment in childhood, can have a significant bearing on the negative psychosocial outcomes of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“While ADHD is clearly a heritable and biologically based disorder, and can be treated with medications, it is very important for clinicians and treatment providers to pay close attention to the trauma experiences of individuals, particularly women, with ADHD,” said Maya Guendelman, a Ph.D. student in psychology at UC Berkeley, and lead author of the study.

The results also raise the question of whether children with ADHD are more vulnerable to maltreatment due to family stress. A neurodevelopmental disorder, ADHD is estimated to afflict at least 6 million children and teenagers in the United States and is characterized by poor concentration, distractibility, hyperactivity, impulsiveness and other behaviors that are inappropriate for the child’s age.

“In the United States, we have a large contingent of kids being diagnosed with ADHD. At the same time, 10 to 20 percent of U.S. kids are abused or neglected. But we have very limited understanding of the overlap between these two groups,” Guendelman said.

“What if, in some portion of cases, we as clinicians, parents and teachers are superficially seeing and diagnosing and treating symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention, but it is really trauma experiences that underlie some of those overt manifestations of ADHD?” she added.

To investigate the relationship between ADHD and childhood maltreatment, Guendelman and fellow researchers compared data from the Berkeley Girls with ADHD Longitudinal Study (BGALS), which has tracked more than 140 girls with ADHD from childhood to adulthood since 1997.

Led by UC Berkeley psychologist Stephen Hinshaw, BGALS has consistently found that — unlike boys, whose symptoms are more overt — girls with ADHD suffer in hidden ways, and are more likely to internalize struggles as they mature into adolescence and young adulthood. This coping mechanism can make them more prone to depression, self-mutilation, eating disorders and suicide attempts as they enter adulthood, the study’s data shows.

Specifically, Guendelman and her team looked into how many of the women with ADHD in the BGALS sample had reported incidents of physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect during childhood or adolescence. They found that nearly 1 in 4 members of the ADHD group had reported some form of trauma by adolescence, compared with 11 percent in the non-ADHD control group, and that this maltreated ADHD subgroup had a higher propensity for depression, anxiety and self-destruction than both the girls with ADHD who had not been maltreated and the girls in the non-ADHD control group.

“Our findings clearly support the contention that child or adolescent maltreatment specifically is an important risk factor for maladaptive functioning in young adulthood among women with childhood ADHD, particularly with respect to depression, anxiety and suicidal behavior,” Guendelman said.

“This is not to say that all ADHD is due to social adversity rather than biological factors,” she added. “Rather, it suggests that we must consider the contribution of factors such as severe social stress and trauma in our understanding of how children with ADHD develop.”

The BGALS sample is made up of a racially and socioeconomically diverse group of girls in the San Francisco Bay Area who have been tracked through early childhood summer camp participation, adolescence and now into early adulthood. It has compared the behavioral, emotional and academic development of the 140 girls with ADHD to that of a demographically similar group of 88 girls without ADHD. Every five years, the research team publishes studies looking into how ADHD impacts girls, including this latest research.

ADHD is not the only psychopathology impacted by environmental factors, said Hinshaw, senior author of the study.

“Across a range of mental disorders, from schizophrenia to depression and bipolar disorder, scientists are realizing that, despite the undisputed biological underpinnings of these conditions, key life experiences, including trauma, are essential forces related to long-term outcomes,” Hinshaw said.

In addition to Guedelman and Hinshaw, authors and researchers on the study are Elizabeth Owens at UC Berkeley, Chardee Galan at the University of Pittsburgh and Arianna Gard at the University of Michigan.

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When you’re smiling

Are happier people healthier? UC Irvine psychologist explores power of positive emotions.

Sarah Pressman, assistant professor of psychology & social behavior at UC Irvine, and her dog, Milo, enjoy an afternoon at William R. Mason Regional Park near campus. She studies the link between happiness and health. (Photo by Steve Zylius, UC Irvine)

By Kathryn Bold, UC Irvine

Driving on the 405 freeway in Orange County rush-hour traffic, Sarah Pressman can be forgiven if she doesn’t feel like smiling. When other cars cut her off or ride her bumper, she’s tempted to do what many commuters do: curse or engage in some creative sign language. But she grins and bears it – even if it means clamping a pen between her teeth to force herself to smile.

“I literally put a pen in my mouth when I drive. It helps because you can’t feel really angry and stressed when you have this ridiculous smile on your face,” Pressman says.

She takes smiling seriously – and for good reason. An assistant professor of psychology & social behavior at UC Irvine, she studies the link between positive emotion and physical well-being. Pressman is among the first researchers to demonstrate that happy, optimistic, cheerful people tend to be healthier than those who are sad, angry or depressed, and she’s working to understand why.

“I’m not really studying what makes people happy or how they can improve their life satisfaction,” she says. “I’m trying to understand why people who are happy do better physically. Why do they live longer? Why are they less likely to get cancer? How do these positive traits protect people and keep them healthy, and how can we take advantage of them to help others?”

Put on a happy face

Pressman herself smiles often – a big, natural grin – and speaks fast, as though in a hurry to get to the bottom of her latest query. She’s led a host of studies that delve into the relationship between positive emotion and health. In particular, she’s found that smiles – even the fake, beauty pageant kind – can have beneficial physiological effects, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing pain.

Her research is based on the facial feedback hypothesis, an idea once floated by Charles Darwin that “the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.” Pressman was particularly intrigued by a 1988 German study in which subjects viewed “The Far Side” comics, some while clenching a pen between their teeth to create an automatic smile and others while holding a pen between their puckered lips, as if sipping a straw, to maintain a neutral expression. The smiling group rated the comics funnier than did the neutral group, indicating that any smile, genuine or artificially induced, can lift one’s spirits.

To find out if those happy feelings translate into health benefits, Pressman conducted a study two years ago in which students from a Midwestern university used chopsticks – a more appetizing choice than pens – to maintain either a neutral, nonsmiling expression or a standard, do-you-want-fries-with-that smile. She also coached a third group to practice more natural, ear-to-ear grins – known as Duchenne smiles – that engage the eyes as well as the mouth. Pressman then asked all of them to perform stress-inducing tasks, such as tracing a star with their nondominant hand or submerging their hand in ice water.

Surprisingly, both smiling groups experienced less stress and discomfort than the neutral group. In fact, fake smiles produced nearly the same positive results as real ones. There also were measurable physiological differences. Heart rates of the smiling participants were lower than those of the nonsmilers during the test and dropped faster when it was over.

That something as simple as a smile could have such a profound effect on health garnered a storm of media attention. Pressman’s findings were touted in major outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and even raised smiles among viewers of “The Colbert Report.” Comedian Stephen Colbert mugged on camera with a pen in his mouth. (Watch the CBS News story “Grin and Bear It” online at youtube.com/watch?v=nkGsgQvY4hw.)

All joking aside, the study has serious health implications.

“When your heart doesn’t go back down to baseline after a stressor’s over, it puts pressure on you. It puts a burden on your heart,” Pressman notes. Individuals whose heart rates remain elevated after stress are more susceptible to future hypertension and heart disease.

Taking the sting out of vaccinations

In a related study, Pressman found that people who smiled while getting a simulated flu shot rated the experience 40 percent less painful than did those who didn’t wear a happy face.

“They also had lower heart rate responses to the stressful experience of the needle,” she says. “I like having physiological data to go along with [the self-reported feedback] because you can’t fake it.”

Seeing potential benefits to children’s health, Pressman is applying for a pediatric grant to conduct a follow-up study.

“I feel we’ll be able to translate this into the real world quite nicely,” she says. “If you can reduce the pain of a flu shot, it might encourage more parents to get their kids vaccinated.” In addition, she and other researchers have shown that vaccines aren’t as effective if people are stressed out while getting their shot; smiling while enduring the needle might offer better protection against the flu.

There are, however, limits to the power of facial expressions over feelings, Pressman notes.

“It’s not going to help people who have chronic stress or chronic pain. If an earthquake happens or a tornado strikes, you’re not going to be able to smile your way out of it,” she says. “But for most of us, the stressors we face day to day are minor, like getting stuck in traffic or stubbing your toe. And these simple interventions seem to be pretty helpful for this kind of thing.”

First-world problem?

Pressman wondered if positive emotions only affected people’s health in developed countries, where “they have the luxury of worrying about their happiness.”

“The question we had was, ‘Would happiness have the same benefits in places where people face famine, homelessness and death due to lack of medical care?’” she says. “We anticipated that it wouldn’t, because there are more pressing things that might impact their health.”

In a first-of-its-kind study involving 142 countries, Pressman used data from the Gallup World Poll to compare participants’ emotional state (the surveys asked if they had recently experienced happiness, enjoyment, worry, sadness, stress, anger, etc.) with their self-reported physical health.

The results surprised her. Emotions actually had a greater influence on health in developing countries such as Sierra Leone and Nigeria than in industrialized nations. For instance, people in Malawi, which has a per capita gross domestic product of $900, show a stronger connection between happiness and wellness than residents of the U.S., with a per capita GDP of $49,800.

One explanation for the finding: People in developed countries have access to medical care that can counteract the effects of negative emotions on the body. “An American with hypertension can take blood pressure-lowering medication. A Malawian cannot,” Pressman says.

Reason to smile

Pressman is now trying to pinpoint which specific positive emotions work best to counteract high blood pressure and cortisol levels, which rise during stress and suppress one’s immune system.

“We want to take a magnifying glass to this and find out which are the most beneficial– feeling calm and relaxed? Vigorous? Excited? Enthusiastic?” she says. So far, her research indicates that an enthusiastic, robust attitude may do the body the most good.

Ultimately, Pressman hopes her work will help people cope better with traffic jams and other stressors of modern life.

“In the U.S., we wear our stress as a badge of honor. People continue to overtax themselves, to put in long hours and have a poor work-life balance,” she says. “We know stress is one of the things killing us. I don’t think it’s going away. So if we could teach people simple strategies to prevent stress from hurting their bodies, that would be fantastic.”

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Add nature, art, religion to life’s best anti-inflammatories

Positive emotions associated with markers of good health.

By Yasmin Anwar, UC Berkeley

Taking in such spine-tingling wonders as the Grand Canyon, Sistine Chapel ceiling or Schubert’s “Ave Maria” may give a boost to the body’s defense system, according to new research from UC Berkeley.

Researchers have linked positive emotions – especially the awe we feel when touched by the beauty of nature, art and spirituality – with lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are proteins that signal the immune system to work harder.

“Our findings demonstrate that positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health,” said Jennifer Stellar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study, which she conducted while at UC Berkeley.

While cytokines are necessary for herding cells to the body’s battlegrounds to fight infection, disease and trauma, sustained high levels of cytokines are associated with poorer health and such disorders as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s disease and clinical depression.

It has long been established that a healthy diet and lots of sleep and exercise bolster the body’s defenses against physical and mental illnesses. But the Berkeley study, whose findings were just published in the journal Emotion, is one of the first to look at the role of positive emotions in that arsenal.

“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study.

In two separate experiments, more than 200 young adults reported on a given day the extent to which they had experienced such positive emotions as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. Samples of gum and cheek tissue, known as oral mucosal transudate, taken that same day showed that those who experienced more of these positive emotions, especially awe, wonder and amazement, had the lowest levels of the cytokine, Interleukin 6, a marker of inflammation.

In addition to autoimmune diseases, elevated cytokines have been tied to depression. One recent study found that depressed patients had higher levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokine known as TNF-alpha than their non-depressed counterparts. It is believed that by signaling the brain to produce inflammatory molecules, cytokines can block key hormones and neurotransmitters – such as serotonin and dopamine – that control moods, appetite, sleep and memory.

In answer to why awe would be a potent predictor of reduced pro-inflammatory cytokines, this latest study posits that “awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment,” Stellar said.

As for which came first – the low cytokines or the positive feelings – Stellar said she can’t say for sure: “It is possible that having lower cytokines makes people feel more positive emotions, or that the relationship is bidirectional,” Stellar said.

In addition to Stellar and Keltner, other co-authors and researchers on the study are Neha John-Henderson at the University of Pittsburgh and Craig Anderson, Amie Gordon and Galen McNeil at UC Berkeley.

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Memory expert receives Grawemeyer Award for Psychology

UC Irvine founding faculty member James McGaugh honored for learning, memory research.

UC Irvine neuroscientist and founding faculty member James McGaugh stands in front of the campus building that is named after him. (Photo by Steve Zylius, UC Irvine)

UC Irvine neurobiologist James McGaugh, whose research has vastly contributed to our knowledge of the brain’s learning and memory abilities, has won the 2015 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.

A research professor in neurobiology & behavior and a founding UCI faculty member, McGaugh is receiving the prize for discovering that stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol are key to why we remember some things more vividly than others.

The hormones activate the brain’s emotional center, the amygdala, which in turn regulates other brain areas that process and consolidate memories – a sequence that explains why emotional experiences are easier to recall, he found.

“His work has transformed the field,” said award director Woody Petry. “It has profound implications for helping us understand and treat memory disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”

McGaugh began studying the link between emotion and memory in the 1960s, when he discovered that giving stimulants to animals immediately after training fostered retention of the new skills. Later, he learned that naturally occurring stress hormones had a similar memory-enhancing effect.

Recently, McGaugh has been studying people with highly superior autobiographical memory to see if differences in brain structure may account for the trait.

“The list of previous Grawemeyer Award for Psychology recipients is remarkable,” he said. “It’s an honor to be included.”

Five Grawemeyer Award winners are being named this week. The University of Louisville presents the prizes annually for excellence in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology and education; it confers a religion prize jointly with Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This year’s awards are $100,000 each.

UCI’s Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor of social ecology and professor of law, received the Grawemeyer Award for Psychology in 2005.

About James McGaugh

James McGaugh’s seminal work on emotion and memory has been featured on popular television programs such as CBS’s “60 Minutes,” described in dozens of textbooks, and cited about 31,000 times in more than 15,000 professional papers.

McGaugh joined UCI in 1964, a year before classes began. Over the ensuing decades, he served as executive vice chancellor, vice chancellor of academic affairs, dean of biological sciences and department chair, in addition to founding and directing the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory.

UCI named McGaugh Hall after him in 2001 and also awarded him the UCI Medal and established a neurobiology & behavior graduate research award of excellence in his name.

Among McGaugh’s many other honors are the Association for Psychological Science’s William James Fellow Award, the American Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions, the American Philosophical Society’s Karl Spencer Lashley Award, the Society of Experimental Psychologists’ Norman Anderson Lifetime Achievement Award, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s John McGovern Lecture award, and the Western Psychological Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

A former president of the Association for Psychological Science, McGaugh is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Society for Neuroscience, the International Brain Research Organization, the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, the Society of Experimental Psychologists and the World Academy of Art & Science.

He also is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

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Tolman, behavior and academic freedom

UC Berkeley day of talks honors pioneering professor.

In Tolman Hall, Seth Rosenfeld, author of "Subversives," connected the dots from Edward Tolman's stand against the UC loyalty oath to the Free Speech Movement. (Photo by Barry Bergman, UC Berkeley)

If you’ve ever been to Tolman Hall, you probably reached it not by rigid adherence to a series of mechanical steps — start at West Circle, go up Hilgard Way, first right to the end of Morgan Hall, then first left and voila — but by navigating via the map in your head. That is, you pictured its location, and figured out a suitable route.

If you’d made the trip Monday, you would have learned it was the man who lent the aging psychology building his name, longtime UC Berkeley professor Edward Tolman, whose pre-World War II work with rats in mazes changed how we think about how we think. His groundbreaking insights laid the foundation for the discovery of what’s been called “the brain’s GPS” — the underlying neural machinery of the cognitive map — and this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Edward Moser, who shared the 2014 Nobel with his wife, May-Britt Moser, and John O’Keefe, gave the keynote address at Monday’s daylong celebration of Tolman’s legacy. While Moser and fellow neuroscientist David Foster, of Johns Hopkins University, gave technical presentations on their clinical research — with due credit to Tolman’s pioneering work in psychology — others highlighted his role as a pioneer in the realm of academic freedom.

In 1949, as McCarthyism raged, Tolman took a high-profile stand against the special “loyalty oath” demanded of UC employees by President Robert Gordon Sproul and the Board of Regents. Although he was fired, he not only won back his faculty position but was instrumental in winning the fight against the oath, which was ultimately found to be unconstitutional.

“The issue I am concerned with involves not communists but liberals,” explained Tolman, reading a letter to Sproul at a meeting of the Academic Senate. “For, when one reads the second part of the oath again, one discovers certain ambiguities of statement and meaning which would make it very difficult for many of us liberals to be certain just what we were being asked to commit ourselves to.”

He further objected that because only individuals can “believe,” it was dangerous to require faculty to disavow membership in organizations that “believe in” the overthrow of the U.S. government. This, he said, was “neither good psychology nor good civil rights.”

In 1963, the year before the Free Speech Movement — whose support from the Berkeley faculty, said author and journalist (and one-time Daily Cal reporter) Seth Rosenfeld, was an extension of the loyalty-oath fight — Berkeley’s new psychology building was dedicated in his name.

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The evolution of ‘anger face’

Researchers identify origin and purpose of the facial expression for anger.

The anger face is a constellation of features, each of which makes a person appear physically stronger. (iStock photo)

The next time you get really mad, take a look in the mirror. See the lowered brow, the thinned lips and the flared nostrils? That’s what social scientists call the “anger face,” and it appears to be part of our basic biology as humans.

Now, researchers at UC Santa Barbara and at Griffith University in Australia have identified the functional advantages that caused the specific appearance of the anger face to evolve. Their findings appear in the current online edition of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

“The expression is cross-culturally universal, and even congenitally blind children make this same face without ever having seen one,” said lead author Aaron Sell, a lecturer at the School of Criminology at Griffith University in Australia. Sell was formerly a postdoctoral scholar at UCSB’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology.

The anger expression employs seven distinct muscle groups that contract in a highly stereotyped manner. The researchers sought to understand why evolution chose those particular muscle contractions to signal the emotional state of anger.

The current research is part of a larger set of studies that examine the evolutionary function of anger. “Our earlier research showed that anger evolved to motivate effective bargaining behavior during conflicts of interest,” said Sell.

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Digital devices may be reducing young people’s social skills

Study finds sixth-graders read human emotions better after taking break from digital media.

Students in the study looked at photos and were tested on their ability to recognize the emotions of those pictured.

Children’s social skills may be declining as they have less time for face-to-face interaction due to their increased use of digital media, according to a UCLA psychology study.

UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

“Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” said Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology in the UCLA College and senior author of the study. “Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues — losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people — is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.”

The research will be in the October print edition of Computers in Human Behavior and is already published online.

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Aging brain influenced by experiences throughout life

Study from UC Davis and University of Victoria examines demographics and cognitive aging.

Early life experiences, such as childhood socioeconomic status and literacy, may have greater influence on the risk of cognitive impairment late in life than such demographic characteristics as race and ethnicity, a large study by researchers with the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the University of Victoria, Canada, has found.

“Declining cognitive function in older adults is a major personal and public health concern,” said Bruce Reed, professor of neurology and associate director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

“But not all people lose cognitive function, and understanding the remarkable variability in cognitive trajectories as people age is of critical importance for prevention, treatment and planning to promote successful cognitive aging and minimize problems associated with cognitive decline.”

The study, “Life Experiences and Demographic Influences on Cognitive Function in Older Adults,” is published online in Neuropsychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association. It is one of the first comprehensive examinations of the multiple influences of varied demographic factors early in life and their relationship to cognitive aging.

The research was conducted in a group of over 300 diverse men and women who spoke either English or Spanish. They were recruited from senior citizen social, recreational and residential centers, as well as churches and health-care settings. At the time of recruitment, all study participants were 60 or older, and had no major psychiatric illnesses or life threatening medical illnesses. Participants were Caucasian, African-American or Hispanic.

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New direction suggested for treating mental health disorders

Experts urge new discipline combining benefits of neuroscience, psychology treatments.

Michelle Craske, UCLA

When a patient talks with a psychological therapist, what changes occur in the patient’s brain that relieve mental disorders? UCLA psychology professor Michelle Craske says the honest answer is that we don’t know. But, according to Craske and two colleagues, we need to find out.

Mental health disorders — such as depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder and eating disorders — affect 1 in 4 people worldwide. Psychological treatments “hold the strongest evidence base for addressing many such conditions,” but they need improvement, according to a study by Craske, Cambridge University professor Emily Holmes and MIT professor Ann Graybiel.

Their article was published online July 16 in the journal Nature.

For some conditions, such as bipolar disorder, psychological treatments are not effective or are in their infancy, the life scientists report, and a “culture gap” between neuroscientists and clinical scientists has hindered the progress of mental health treatments. The authors call on scientists from both disciplines to work together to advance the understanding and treatment of psychological disorders.

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