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Psychological gym experiment proves the power of mind over matter

It isn't mind over matter as much as mind properly working with matter.

DENVER, CO - MAY 16: Brian and Monica Folts workout on treadmills at Colorado Athletic Club Tabor Center on May 16, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. The couple runs marathons and compete in Ironman triathlons and train on on treadmills. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
  • A new Stanford study finds believing you have genetic predispositions for obesity and low exercise endurance changes your physiology.
  • Participants told they had a protective obesity gene had a better response than those told they did not, even if they did not actually have the gene.
  • Runners performed poorly after learning they did not have the gene for endurance, even if they actually have the gene.

Shortly after the genetic testing service, 23andMe, launched, I signed up. A recent podcast ad mentioned one condition the company tests for that I had missed: misophonia. Having suffered from this psychological phenomenon my entire life, I didn't realize 23andme had pinpointed a predisposition.

Turns out I'm at average risk for misophonia, reminding me once again that while genes are destiny, as Siddhartha Mukherjee noted, they are not the only factor in your future (as Mukherjee also noticed). Yet this raises an interesting question: If I knew I was genetically predisposed for misophonia, would this increase the likelihood I'd suffer from it?

Mind over matter is a longtime expression suggesting that the power of thought can override physical processes. This sentiment is misguided. "Mind and matter" or "mind with matter" might be more appropriate considering that "mind" relies on a body to set it in motion. The "over" part places too much emphasis on mental activity. We're not trying to bend spoons, but align our mental and physical worlds.

We already know mind influences matter: mindset is the catalyst for action, which sets into motion subsequent reaction. Viewing it as a battle is not the healthiest affective attitude to cultivate. A new study at Stanford, published in Nature Human Behavior, has discovered that mind indeed has a profound effect on how our body's chemistry operates:

In a study examining what may be a novel form of the placebo response, psychologists have found that just telling a person they have a high or low genetic risk for certain physical traits can influence how their body functions when exercising or eating, regardless of what genetic variant they actually have.

Assistant professor of psychology, Alia Crum, and her team found that physiological responses changed when participants were informed they had an increased genetic risk for obesity or low exercise capacity. This information changed their mindset, thus affecting their chemistry.

Two groups were measured: 116 participants in the exercise study, 107 in the eating segment. A week after their initial test (treadmill endurance for the exercise set, eating a small meal for the other), they performed the same tests, only this time genetic information was disclosed—sometimes falsely.

Those who were told they had a version of the gene that made them less prone to obesity, FTO, actually performed better after the second meal. They produced two-and-a-half times more of the fullness hormone, even though the meal was identical to the one they'd eaten the week before. Whether or not they are actually genetically predisposed didn't matter. What did was whether or not they thought they were.

The same occurred in the exercise group and their levels of CREB1.

People told they had a gene that made them respond poorly to exercise then went on to do much worse on a challenging treadmill test. Their lung capacity was reduced, they were less efficient at removing carbon dioxide, and they quit the treadmill test sooner.

Participants informed they were predisposed to a lower exercise threshold performed worse on the treadmill test even if they were not actually predisposed, while those who believed they have the protective obesity gene performed better on the eating tests even if they did not have that gene.

Crum believes this fact has to be taken into consideration when delivering genetic information by companies such as 23andMe. She continues,

The take-home message here is that the mindset that you put people in when you deliver genetic risk information is not irrelevant. The mindset of being genetically at risk or protected can alter how we feel, what we do and – as this study shows – how our bodies respond.

When I recently logged back into 23andMe, I noticed layers of security—emotional protection, really—required before I was allowed to receive new information. I was asked a few times whether or not I really wanted to know if I was predisposed to a varying range of problems. Inquisitive creature I am, I always click "yes."

Yet as Crum's study shows, that might not be the best decision. Information is powerful. What we think matters. Not knowing has its own power, as does believing false information. This might not be what we want in our politics, but in our bodies it might prove a powerful antidote to the destiny genetics had initially planned.

Mind and matter are part of the same package. Treating them any other way leads to confusion and frustration. Approach a situation with the proper mindset—even a false one, it turns out—and the tension between the two immediately fades.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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