Empathy with strangers can be learned

We can learn to empathize with strangers. Surprisingly positive experiences with people from another group trigger a learning effect in the brain, which increases empathy. As researchers from the University of Zurich reveal, only a handful of positive learning experiences already suffice for a person to be-come more empathic.

Conflicts between people from different nationalities and cultures often stem from a lack of empathy or compassion for ‘the stranger’. More empathy for members of other groups could thus encourage peaceful coexistence. A study conducted by the University of Zurich examined whether empathy with strangers can be learned and how positive experiences with others influence empathic brain responses.

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Read also: How learning shapes the empathic brain

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A neural link between altruism and empathy toward strangers

Giving up a kidney to a stranger requires a certain sense of selflessness, what’s come to be known in social science as extraordinary altruism. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Kristin Brethel-Haurwitz wanted to understand the connection between this trait and empathy, specifically empathy for distress emotions.

Using fMRI scans, Brethel-Haurwitz and colleagues from Georgetown University discovered that these altruistic kidney donors were more sensitive to a stranger’s fear and pain than a control group, with activation happening in a brain region called the anterior insula, which is key for emotions like pain and disgust. This research, published in Psychological Science, is the first to show a clear link between real-world altruism and empathy for the pain of strangers.

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Researchers identify molecule with anti-aging effects on vascular system

A molecule produced during fasting or calorie restriction has anti-aging effects on the vascular system, which could reduce the occurrence and severity of human diseases related to blood vessels, such as cardiovascular disease, according to a study led by Georgia State University.

“As people become older, they are more susceptible to diseases, like cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Ming-Hui Zou, senior author of the study, director of the Center for Molecular and Translational Medicine at Georgia State and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Molecular Medicine. “Age is the most important so-called risk factor for human disease. How to actually delay aging is a major pathway to reducing the incident and severity of human disease.

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Understanding how genes and the environment interact in shaping child behavior

The field of epigenetics focuses on how the blueprint provided by genes is actualized, examining how experiences influence the way genes manifest themselves or are “expressed.” Using the tools of epigenetics, the studies in the special section move beyond the perspective that either genes or the environment are most important in shaping children’s development, to an intensive focus on how children’s experiences actually affect the way their genes function.

All of the studies in the special section look at the epigenetic mechanism of “gene methylation.” Gene methylation is described by Lester in the special section introduction as a kind of dimmer switch: “If all of the cells associated with a particular gene are unmethylated, the population of cells can produce the amount of protein consistent with a fully active gene. Conversely, if the gene is fully methylated it will produce very little or none of the protein…” resulting in a gene that is switched off.

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Read also: Social adversity early in life may affect the expression of stress-related genes

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Childhood stress leaves lasting mark on genes

Kids who experience severe stress are more likely to develop a host of physical and mental health problems by the time they reach adulthood, including anxiety, depression and mood disorders. But how does early life stress put children at risk when they grow up? To find out, researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison compared the whole genomes of children with very high-stress early lives to those of kids whose childhoods were relatively tranquil. They found scores of differences in how their genes function, differences that may point out avenues to better diagnosis and treatment of stress-related disorders. Their work, supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, was published today (July 17, 2018) in the journal Scientific Reports.

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Sweeter dreams in a peaceful mind

A new study by researchers from the University of Turku, Finland and the University of Skövde, Sweden shows that people with more peace of mind in the waking state have more positive dreams, whereas those with more anxiety in the waking state have more negative dreams. This means that dream experiences, as revealed in recalled and reported dreams may reflect a person’s mental health. It has long been assumed that the content of dreams can tell us something about the person’s well-being. However, so far dream researchers have mostly studied the dreams of people suffering from various disorders and we know very little about the positive side of well-being: do happier people have happier dreams? Well-being researchers, on the other hand, have specifically studied happiness, but have neglected an important aspect of well-being—peace of mind.

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The brain predicts words before they are pronounced

The brain is not only able to finish the sentences of others: A study by the Basque research centre BCBL has shown for the first time that it can also anticipate an auditory stimulus and determine the phonemes and specific words the speaker is going to pronounce. Prediction is one of the main neuro-cognitive mechanisms of the brain. Every millisecond, the brain tries to actively anticipate what will happen next depending on the knowledge it has of its environment. In recent years, many research studies have been launched to understand the phenomenon of prediction in depth, but little was known until now about the role played by this phenomenon in the understanding of language.

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Neurobehavioral Mechanisms of Resilience Against Emotional Distress

Clarifying individual differences that predict resilience or vulnerability to emotional distress is crucial for identifying etiological factors contributing to affective disturbances, and to promoting emotional well-being. Despite recent progress identifying specific brain regions and personality traits, it remains unclear whether there are common factors underlying the structural aspects of the brain and the personality traits that, in turn, protect against symptoms of emotional distress. In the present study, an integrative structural equation model was developed to examine the associations among (1) a latent construct of Control, representing the volumes of a system of prefrontal cortical (PFC) regions including middle, inferior, and orbital frontal cortices; (2) a latent construct of Resilience personality traits including cognitive reappraisal, positive affectivity, and optimism; and (3) Anxiety and Depression symptoms, in a sample of 85 healthy young adults. Results showed that the latent construct of PFC volumes positively predicted the latent construct of Resilience, which in turn negatively predicted Anxiety. Mediation analysis confirmed that greater latent PFC volume is indirectly associated with lower Anxiety symptoms through greater latent trait Resilience. The model did not show a significant mediation for Depression. These results support the idea that there are common volumetric and personality factors that help protect against symptoms of emotional distress. These findings provide strong evidence that such brain-personality-symptom approaches can provide novel insights with valuable implications for understanding the interaction of these factors in healthy and clinically diagnosed individuals.

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Life’s Purpose Rests in Brain’s Drive to Extract Meaning From the World

A new article questions what gives us purpose in life? Researchers speculate it is our drive to extract meaning from the world around us.

What is the purpose of life? Whatever you may think is the answer, you might, from time to time at least, find your own definition unsatisfactory. After all, how can one say why any living creature is on Earth in just one simple phrase?

For me, looking back on 18 years of research into how the human brain handles language, there seems to be only one, solid, resilient thread that prevails over all others. Humanity’s purpose rests in the spectacular drive of our minds to extract meaning from the world around us.

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Read also: Life’s purpose rests in our mind’s spectacular drive to extract meaning from the world

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The Emergence and Representation of Knowledge about Social and Nonsocial Hierarchies

Primates are remarkably adept at ranking each other within social hierarchies, a capacity that is critical to successful group living. Surprisingly little, however, is understood about the neurobiology underlying this quintessential aspect of primate cognition. In our experiment, participants first acquired knowledge about a social and a nonsocial hierarchy and then used this information to guide investment decisions. We found that neural activity in the amygdala tracked the development of knowledge about a social, but not a nonsocial, hierarchy. Further, structural variations in amygdala gray matter volume accounted for interindividual differences in social transitivity performance. Finally, the amygdala expressed a neural signal selectively coding for social rank, whose robustness predicted the influence of rank on participants’ investment decisions. In contrast, we observed that the linear structure of both social and nonsocial hierarchies was represented at a neural level in the hippocampus. Our study implicates the amygdala in the emergence and representation of knowledge about social hierarchies and distinguishes the domain-general contribution of the hippocampus

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