Tapping into the healing effect of the placebo.
Western medicine has long viewed the placebo effect as a nuisance, getting in the way of knowing whether a drug is actually effective. But in the past couple of decades a few doctors—perhaps most notably Andrew Weil—have come to the defense of the placebo effect, calling it a low cost, effective method of healing with no toxic side effects.
“I think the placebo response is the greatest ally that a practitioner has,” Dr. Weil has said. “The best kind of medicine is that which elicits the maximum placebo response with a minimum direct impact on the physical body.” Now, reports Joseph Dispenza for Spirituality & Health (March/April 2014, article not online) researchers are investigating just how to do that.
A 2010 study led by Harvard’s Ted Kaptchuk found that placebos can work even when people know they’re taking a placebo. In the study, 40 people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) received a bottle clearly labeled “Placebo Pills.” They were told the placebos had previously calmed other patients’ IBS symptoms through a self-healing process. The other half received nothing, serving as the control group. Three weeks later, the experimental group reported twice as much relief as those who hadn’t received any treatment—a rate comparable to the best IBS drugs currently available.
How did it happen? It’s basically a self-fulfilling prophecy. By taking the placebo—and believing in its effectiveness—we are able to unlock a mind-body connection that triggers the body to heal itself. While the placebo effect certainly needs much more research, one thing is clear: The power of intention, mind, and body is greater than we’ve allowed ourselves to think.
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Turns out anyone can cultivate empathic skills—even psychopaths.
How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part ten of ten (part nine).
In daily life, calling someone a “psychopath” or a “sociopath” is a way of saying that the person is beyond redemption. Are they?
When neuroscientist James Fallon accidentally discovered that his brain resembled that of a psychopath—showing less activity in areas of the frontal lobe linked to empathy—he was confused. After all, Fallon was a happily married man, with a career and good relationships with colleagues. How could he be beyond redemption?
Additional genetic tests revealed “high-risk alleles for aggression, violence, and low empathy.” What was going on? Fallon decided he was a “pro-social psychopath,” someone whose genetic and neurological inheritance makes it hard for him to feel empathy, but who was gifted with a good upbringing and environment—good enough to overcome latent psychopathic tendencies.
This self-description found support in a study published this year by Swiss and German researchers, which showed education levels and “social desirability” seemed to improve empathy in diagnosed psychopaths. Another new study found that empathy deficits don’t necessarily lead to aggression.
It seems that psychopaths can be taught to feel empathy and compassion, though they have a disability that makes developing those skills difficult. When a team of researchers looked at the brain activity of psychopathic criminals in the Netherlands, for example, they discovered the predictable empathic deficits. But they also found that it made a difference in their brains to simply ask the criminals to empathize with others—hinting that empathy may be repressed rather than missing entirely in people classified as psychopaths. For some, at least, it may help a great deal to lift that repression.
Psychopathy remains an intractable mental illness and social problem—this year’s studies of treatment did not reveal a magic bullet that would turn psychopaths into angels. But we can take heart in the fact that if they can develop empathic skills, anyone can.
Image by Sean MacEntee, licensed under Creative Commons.
A “fat lady with a nutrition degree” urges us to make friends with food and our bodies
From incessant press coverage of the obesity epidemic to diet manuals masquerading as health magazines, Americans’ weight and eating habits seem to be under constant surveillance. Surrounded as we are by “thinspiration” and cupcake shops, it’s little wonder we’ve become a nation of disordered eaters, guilt-ridden about indulgences, confused about food, and searching desperately for the mythical experience of “normal eating.”
What a breath of fresh air, then, the fat-positive, food-positive attitude of Michelle Allison, The Fat Nutritionist. On her blog, the self-described “fat lady with a nutrition degree,” investigates the meeting points of food, body, mind, and culture, empowering readers to love themselves and whatever food they choose to eat. For Bitch (issue 60), Julie Smolinski writes that Allison “encourages readers to be independent, unashamed, and most of all, satisfied in their eating.”
Healthy relationships rarely come from loathing or suspicion. Relationships to our bodies and food are no exception. Allison grasps this and shouts it out. “I’m not here to give you a stern talking-to about your weight, or your eating habits, or your lack of exercise,” she writes. “But I can help you get to a friendly place with food and your body.”
Photo by Janine, licensed under Creative Commons.
How context influences our sense of right and wrong.
How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part nine of ten (part eight).
An out-of-control train will kill five people. You can switch the train onto another track and save them—but doing so will kill one person. What should you do?
A series of experiments published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that on one day you’ll divert the train and save those five lives—but on another you might not. It all depends on how the dilemma is framed and how we’ve been thinking about ourselves.
Through the train dilemma and other experiments, the study revealed two factors that can influence our moral decisions. The first involves how morality has been defined for you, in this case around consequences or rules. For example, when researchers asked participants to think in terms of consequences, some readily diverted the train, thus saving four lives. On the other hand, those who prompted to think in terms of rules (e.g., “thou shalt not kill”) let the five die. But that factor was influenced by another that depends on memory and whether your past ethical or unethical behavior is on your mind—a memory of a good deed might make you more likely to cheat, for example, if urged to think of consequences. It’s the complex interaction between those two factors that shapes your decision.
That wasn’t the only study published during the past year that revealed how susceptible we are to context. One study found that people are more moral in the morning than in the afternoon. Another study, cleverly titled “Hunger Games,” found that when people are hungry, they express more support for charitable giving. Yet another experiment discovered that thinking about money makes you more inclined to cheat at a game—but thinking about time keeps you honest.
The bottom line is that our sense of right and wrong is heavily influenced by seemingly trivial variables in memory, in our bodies, and in changes within our environment. This doesn’t necessarily lead us to pessimistic conclusions about humanity—in fact, knowing how our minds work might help us to make better moral decisions
Image by Mark Fischer, licensed under Creative Commons.
Employees are motivated by giving as well as getting.
How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part eight of ten (part seven).
Over the past two decades, work satisfaction has declined, while time spent at work has significantly increased. Not a good combination!
Would paying people more money help? Some studies have shown that rewarding employees for their hard work and late nights at the office with a bonus will make things a little better and quiet dissatisfaction. But in September, through the collaborative research of Lalin Anik, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton, Elizabeth W. Dunn, and Jordi Quoidbach, we learned that employee bonuses might have the most positive effects when they’re spent on others. The researchers suggested an alternative bonus offer that has the potential to provide some of the same benefits as team-based compensation—increased social support, cohesion, and performance—while carrying fewer drawbacks.
Their first experiment focused on broad, self-reported measures of the impact of prosocial bonuses on an employee’s job satisfaction. They were either given a bonus to spend on charity or were not given a bonus at all. Those who gave to charities reported increased happiness and job satisfaction. The second experiment was conducted in two parts—both focused on “sports team orientation” by looking at the difference between donating to a charity or a fellow employee—and attempted to see if these improved actual performance. In the first part of the experiment, these participants were given $20 and told to spend it on a teammate or on themselves over the course of the week. In the second part of this experiment, they were instructed to spend $22 on themselves or on a specified teammate over the course of the week. Both of these experiments found more positive effects for givers than those who spent the $22 on themselves.
This collaborative research indicates that prosocial bonuses can benefit both individuals and teams, on both psychological and “bottom line” indicators, in both the short and long-term. So when you receive your bonus this year, you might want to think twice before buying those pair of shoes you’ve been dying for, instead consider spending it on someone else—because, according to this research, you’ll probably be much happier and more satisfied with your job.
Ed. note: The results of this study, while interesting, are not meant to imply that we shouldn’t be working fewer hours overall, or eliminating meaningless work altogether..
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Gratitude helps lessen suicidal thoughts, says a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality.
How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part seven of ten (part six).
Across a four-week period, 209 college students answered questions to measure depression, suicidal thoughts, grit, gratitude, and meaning in life. The idea was to see if the positive traits—grit and gratitude—mitigated the negative ones. Since depression is a large contributing factor to suicide, they controlled for that variable throughout the study.
Grit, said the authors, is “characterized by the long-term interests and passions, and willingness to persevere through obstacles and setbacks to make progress toward goals aligned or separate from these passionate pursuits.” It stands to reason that someone with lots of grit wouldn’t waste much time on suicidal thoughts.
But what about gratitude? That entails noticing the benefits and gifts received from others, and it gives an individual a sense of belonging. That should make life living—and, indeed, the researchers found that gratitude and grit worked synergistically together to make life more meaningful and to reduce suicidal thoughts, independent of depression symptoms.
As the authors note, their study has huge clinical implications: If therapists can specifically foster gratitude in suicidal people, they should be able to increase their sense that life is worth living. This new finding adds to a pile of new research on the benefits of gratitude. Saying “thanks” can make you happier, sustain your marriage through tough times, reduce envy, and even improve physical health.
Photo by Lachlan Hardy, cropped under the Creative Commons license.
Millennials may benefit from life under the social media microscope.
Conventional wisdom says that because of social media, millennials are more narcissistic than those from preceding generations. And while there are statistics that seem to support that notion, an informative new video from the folks at BrainCraft suggests it may not be a bad thing that a whole generation is growing up under the social media microscope:
“Being faced with ourselves makes us better people – it’s not just about vanity. The ever present media, the images of ourselves on Facebook and around us are allowing us to see ourselves as we never have before. If you take the opportunity to see yourself as others do, rather than to present yourself as you would rather be, the reflection may make you more confident, honest, and self-aware.”
While this new research accentuates the positive, it also acknowledges the slippery slope that exists due to social media’s increasing integration into the every day lives of our youngest generations. If it’s true that increased exposure to social media makes it easier to entertain narcissistic tendencies, then it only seems logical to expect an increase in social media-induced Narcissistic Personality Disorder as well. So, considering this new research, what do you think: Do the benefits of social media for millennials outweigh the potentially damaging effects?