Neuroscience Research Questions Current Alcohol Limit

Anna Ford wrote . . . . . . . . .

New research by neuroscientists from the University of Sussex shows that drinking only one pint of beer or a large glass of wine is enough to significantly compromise a person’s sense of agency.

Sense of agency is the feeling of being in control of our actions. It is an important aspect of human social behaviour, as it implies knowledge of the consequences of those actions.

This new study, ‘Effect of alcohol on the sense of agency in healthy humans’, is the first to test the effect of alcohol on sense of agency. The study focused on low doses of alcohol, typically consumed during social drinking, that do not produce a large impairment of behaviour. Until now, research has mostly focused on the loss of inhibitory control produced by obvious drunkenness, characterised by impulsivity, aggression and risky behaviour.

Dr Silvana De Pirro, lead author of the research paper, said: “Our study presents a compelling case that even one pint of beer is enough to significantly compromise a person’s sense of agency. This has important implications for legal and social responsibility of drivers, and begs the question: are current alcohol limits for driving truly safe?”

Explaining how the study was conducted, Dr De Pirro said: “Measuring a person’s sense of agency is tricky. When people are explicitly asked to tell how in control they feel, their answers are affected by several cognitive biases, such as poor introspection, the desire to conform to researchers’ expectations, or even the inability to understand the question correctly.”

Sussex researchers relied therefore on an indirect measure called ‘intentional binding’, which has been developed to investigate the unconscious mechanisms of ‘volition’. When physical stimuli (such as sounds or lights) follow voluntary actions (such as moving a finger or a hand), people judge actions as occurring later and stimuli as occurring earlier than in reality, hence ‘binding’ the two. The neural mechanisms responsible for this phenomenon are thought to participate in creating the sense of agency.

In the experiments, subjects drank a cocktail containing doses of alcohol proportional to their BMI to produce blood alcohol concentrations within the legal limits for driving in England and Wales. These doses of alcohol, corresponding to one or two pints of beer, produced tighter binding between voluntary actions and sensory stimuli. This suggests that small amounts of alcohol might exaggerate the sense of agency, leading to overconfidence in one’s driving ability and to inappropriate, potentially dangerous behaviour.

Professor Aldo Badiani, Director of the Sussex Addiction Research and Intervention Centre (SARIC), said: “It’s important to note that in our experiments, all the participants stayed within the legal alcohol limit for driving in England, Wales, the US and Canada. And yet we still saw an impairment in their feeling of being in control.

“In England, Wales and North America, the argument to lower the limit has much momentum. The results of our study support the implementation of such a change in the law.”

The legal limit for driving in England and Wales is currently 80 mg/100 ml. The legal limit for driving in Scotland and most European countries is 50 mg/100 ml.

Source: University of Sussex

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6 Reasons Why We Enjoy Listening to Sad Music

Shahram Heshmat wrote . . . . . . . . .

Sadness is a primary emotion that is expressed and perceived equally across cultures. Basic emotions (e.g., anger, happiness, and sadness) are innate and universal. Understanding basic emotions in music is very quick and does not require musical training. For instance, hearing a sad cello performance may induce a genuine state of sadness in a listener.

The most important musical cues for the expression of sadness in Western music include lower overall pitch, slower tempo, use of the minor mode, dull and dark timbres, and less energetic execution (Juslin, 2013). Sadness is generally seen as a negative emotion. But we tend to find it pleasurable in an aesthetic context (known as the paradox of enjoying sad music). What is the nature of the pleasure that people experience from listening to sad music? Accumulated evidence suggests that pleasure in response to sad music is related to a combination of the following factors (Eerola, et al., 2018; Sachs et al 2015).

1. Nostalgia. Sad music is a powerful trigger for nostalgic memories of foregone times. Such reflective revisiting of nostalgic memories may enhance the mood, especially if the memories are related to pivotal and meaningful moments in life (i.e., high school, or college). We enjoy the sweetness of these memories via vivid imaginations. There is some pleasure felt in recollecting the good times, as well as sadness from missing them.

2. Vicarious emotion. Music generates vicarious (substitute) emotions in listeners without real-life implications. Music helps to channel one’s frustration or purge (catharsis) negative emotions (anger and sadness). When we listen to sad music (or watch a sad film), we are disconnected from any real threat or danger that the music (or movie) represents. When we cry at the beauty of sad music, we experience a profound aspect of our emotional selves (Kawakami, et al., 2013).

3. Prolactin. At the biological level, sad music is linked to the hormone prolactin (associated with crying), a chemical that helps to curb grief (Huron, 2011). Sad music tricks the brain into engaging a normal, compensatory response, i.e., the release of prolactin. In the absence of a traumatic event, the body is left with a pleasurable mix of opiates with nowhere else to go. Prolactin produces feelings of calmness to counteract mental pain.

4. Empathy. Empathy plays a significant role in the enjoyment of sad music. Empathy can be broadly defined as a process by which we can come to understand and feel what another person is experiencing. Expressions of sadness and grief are likely to rouse support and help in others. Similarly, listening to sad music may evoke an empathic concern in those with a strong disposition to empathy.

5. Mood regulation. Sad music produces psychological benefits via mood regulation. Sad music enables the listener to disengage from distressing situations (breakup, death, etc.) and focus instead on the beauty of the music. Further, lyrics that resonate with the listener’s personal experience can give voice to feelings or experiences that one might not be able to express oneself.

6. An imaginary friend. Music has the ability to provide company and comfort. People tend to listen to sad music more often when they are in emotional distress or feeling lonely, or when they are in introspective moods. Sad music can be experienced as an imaginary friend who provides support and empathy after the experience of a social loss. The listeners enjoy the mere presence of a virtual person, represented by the music, who is in the same mood and can help cope with sad feelings.

In short, music has the proven ability to affect emotions, mood, memory, and attention. The emotional power of music is one of the main motivations of people who devote so much time, energy and money to it (Juslin, 2013). The ability of music to express emotions is also the reason for its application in music therapy. The knowledge about ways in which sad music becomes enjoyable can inform existing music therapy practices for mood disorders. The primary way by which music listening affects us is via changes in stress response. For example, in one study, participants were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take anti-anxiety drugs. The patients who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol than people who took drugs. Music is arguably less expensive than drugs, is easier on the body, and doesn’t have side effects (Finn & Fancourt, 2018).

Source: Psychology Today

Why Do I Confuse Left and Right?

Sebastian Ocklenburg wrote . . . . . . . . .

Left, right, what?

Almost anyone who has ever gone to a yoga class knows the situation: everyone eagerly follows the instructions of the yoga master, but in the end there are usually one or two people in class who stretch out the opposite arm or leg than everyone else – this has been me more than once!

Left-right confusions are actually quite frequent in everyday life and happen to lots of people whenever a task requires them to differentiate between the two sides, and particularly under time pressure, e.g., when giving someone directions to turn left or right while sitting in the passenger seat of a fast moving car.

So why do we confuse left and right all the time, while we have absolutely no problems to distinguish up from down or front from back? Turns out there might be two reasons for this!

On the one hand, differentiating between left and right is more complicated than differentiating between up and down, as what is left and what is right changes depending on the vantage point. Most of the time we distinguish left and right from our own perspective, but if we have to distinguish them from the perspective of a person facing us, the side of our left arm is the side of their right arm – confusing, isn’t it?

On the other hand, differentiating between left and right is more complicated than differentiating between up and down, as the distinction is completely arbitrary and there are no physical laws underlying it. You want to know what is up and what is down? Pick up an apple and then drop it. Where it lands is usually down. Left and right? Not so easy.

How many people confuse left and right more or less regularly?

A surprising number of people experience issues with telling left from right in their daily lives, so if this ever happens to you, you are in good company. The first larger study on the topic was published in the 1970s and investigated a sample of doctors and their spouses (Wolf, 1973). The result? About 8.8% of men and 17.5% of women stated that they frequently experienced left-right confusion in their daily lives. Some more recent studies estimate the numbers to be even higher. For example, an Australian study from 1990 found that about one third of people at least sometimes experienced frustration with everyday situations that involved the discrimination of left and right (McMonnies, 1990).

Aren’t left-right confusions mostly harmless? Why do scientists need to research them?

While most left-right confusions in everyday life are harmless, there are certain jobs in which you really do not want to confuse left and right – surgeon probably comes to mind first. Disturbingly, left-right confusions in a medical setting still happen more often than one might think. For example, in January 2000 two doctors at a hospital in South Wales accidentally removed the functioning left kidney instead of the right kidney, which in the end led to the patient’s death (Dyer, 2004).

While left-right differentiation in itself is not necessarily a complicated task, medical professionals are often under enormous time pressure, which could enhance the chance of left-right confusions and other errors. Indeed, medical students often report insecurities in telling left from right (Gormley et al., 2019).

Therefore, it has been advised to use side marking before surgery, identifying clearly for the surgeon whether the left or the right limb or organ should be removed. How important of a measure this is was shown by a 2014 study in eye surgeons from Israel (Pikkel et al., 2014). In this study, surgeons where asked to recognize the side of the operation by the patient’s name and by looking at the patient’s face from a 2-meter distance. Surgeons were able to correctly identify the side of the eye that was to be operated in only 73% of cases based on the patient’s name and in 83% of cases by looking at the patient’s face. The number or errors increased the longer the time between pre-operative examination and surgery was. Thus, if the doctors had indeed performed the surgery without the information from side markings on the patients, the probability for surgery on the wrong eye in at least in few patients was quite high.

What happens in the brain when we confuse left and right?

So why do we confuse left and right? Patient studies have shown that in particular the angular gyrus in the parietal lobe of the brain is highly important for discriminating between left and right. Damage in this brain area can lead to the so-called Gerstmann Syndrome (Gold et al., 1995), a rare neurological condition in which patients show four key syndromes:

  1. finger agnosia (inability to name or distinguish the fingers)
  2. agraphia (inability to write)
  3. acalculia (difficulties in performing even simple mathematical tasks)
  4. right-left confusion

Neuroscientists have used different techniques to investigate whether the angular gyrus also affects left-right confusion in healthy people and not only in patients with Gerstmann syndrome. For example, a group of scientists from the University of Durham in the UK used a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to investigate the role of the angular gyrus for left-right confusion (Hirnstein et al., 2011). rTMS uses a magnetic coil to induce a small electric current that stimulates specific brain areas which can either inhibit or excite their function. The researchers found that after rTMS of the left angular gyrus, participants performed worse in left-right discrimination than in a control condition without rTMS. Thus, disturbing proper functioning of this brain area leads to more left-right confusion.

Some years later, a group of Norwegian scientists used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate left-right discrimination (Hjelmervik et al., 2015). fMRI uses magnetic resonance to identify brain areas that are active and therefore receive lots of oxygen from the blood during a given task. Participants had to lay in an fMRI scanner in a hospital and were looking at pictures of hands that pointed into various directions. Their task was to identify whether a hand was a left or a right hand. Analysis of the data revealed that there was indeed activation in the right angular gyrus and surrounding regions in the parietal lobe during this left-right discrimination task.

So what does the angular gyrus actually do? Turns out it seems to be quite the all-rounder. Studies have shown that is involved in language-related processes like sematic processing and word reading, but also in memory and spatial cognition (Seghier, 2013). It seems to work like a cross-modal hub that integrates these different processes to guide our actions. This also explains why it is so relevant for left-right confusion: differentiating left and right requires verbal processes (the words left and right need to be applied to objects in the environment), memory (you have to remember which is left and which is right), and spatial processing (you have to process whether objects around you are on the left or the right side). If the integration of these different processes fails, a left-right confusion might happen.

What can I do against left-right confusions?

Left-right confusions seem to be happen more often when we are under stress or time pressure, so slowing down a bit is probably a good idea in order to avoid making left-right confusions. Also, when you are in doubt which side is which, an old trick is to make an L shape with the thumb and the index finger of each hand. The one that actually looks like the letter L is the left hand!

Source : Psychology Today

Seven Moral Rules Found All Around the World

Anthropologists at the University of Oxford have discovered what they believe to be seven universal moral rules.

The rules: help you family, help your group, return favors, be brave, defer to superiors, divide resources fairly, and respect others’ property, were found in a survey of 60 cultures from all around the world.

Previous studies have looked at some of these rules in some places — but none has looked at all of them in a large representative sample of societies. The present study, published in volume 60, no. 1 issue of Current Anthropology, by Oliver Scott Curry, Daniel Austin Mullins, and Harvey Whitehouse, is the largest and most comprehensive cross-cultural survey of morals ever conducted.

The team from Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology (part of the School of Anthropology & Museum Ethnography) analyzed ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies, comprising over 600,000 words from over 600 sources.

Dr Oliver Scott Curry, lead author and senior researcher at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, said: “The debate between moral universalists and moral relativists has raged for centuries, but now we have some answers. People everywhere face a similar set of social problems and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them. As predicted, these seven moral rules appear to be universal across cultures. Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code. All agree that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do.”

The study tested the theory that morality evolved to promote cooperation, and that — because there are many types of cooperation — there are many types of morality. According to this theory of ‘morality as cooperation’, kin selection explains why we feel a special duty of care for our families, and why we abhor incest. Mutualism explains why we form groups and coalitions (there is strength and safety in numbers), and hence why we value unity, solidarity, and loyalty. Social exchange explains why we trust others, reciprocate favors, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. And conflict resolution explains why we engage in costly displays of prowess such as bravery and generosity, why we defer to our superiors, why we divide disputed resources fairly, and why we recognize prior possession.

The research found, first, that these seven cooperative behaviors were always considered morally good. Second, examples of most of these morals were found in most societies. Crucially, there were no counter-examples — no societies in which any of these behaviors were considered morally bad. And third, these morals were observed with equal frequency across continents; they were not the exclusive preserve of ‘the West’ or any other region.

Among the Amhara of Ethiopia, “flouting kinship obligation is regarded as a shameful deviation, indicating an evil character.” In Korea, there exists an “egalitarian community ethic [of] mutual assistance and cooperation among neighbors [and] strong in-group solidarity.” “Reciprocity is observed in every stage of Garo life [and] has a very high place in the Garo social structure of values.” Among the Maasai, “Those who cling to warrior virtues are still highly respected,” and “the uncompromising ideal of supreme warriorhood [involves] ascetic commitment to self-sacrifice…in the heat of battle, as a supreme display of courageous loyalty.” The Bemba exhibit “a deep sense of respect for elders’ authority.” The Kapauku “idea of justice” is called “uta-uta, half-half… [the meaning of which] comes very close to what we call equity.” And among the Tarahumara, “respect for the property of others is the keystone of all interpersonal relations.”

The study also detected ‘variation on a theme’ — although all societies seemed to agree on the seven basic moral rules, they varied in how they prioritized or ranked them. The team has now developed a new moral values questionnaire to gather data on modern moral values, and is investigating whether cross-cultural variation in moral values reflects variation in the value of cooperation under different social conditions.

According to co-author Professor Harvey Whitehouse, anthropologists are uniquely placed to answer long-standing questions about moral universals and moral relativism. “Our study was based on historical descriptions of cultures from around the world; this data was collected prior to, and independently of, the development of the theories that we were testing. Future work will be able to test more fine-grained predictions of the theory by gathering new data, even more systematically, out in the field.”

“We hope that this research helps to promote mutual understanding between people of different cultures; an appreciation of what we have in common, and how and why we differ,” added Curry.

Source: University of Oxford

Older People Less Apt to Recognize They’ve Made a Mistake

Richard C. Lewis wrote . . . . . . . . . .

The older you get, the less apt you may be to recognize that you’ve made an error.

In a new study, University of Iowa researchers devised a simple, computerized test to gauge how readily young adults and older adults realize when they’ve made a mistake.

Older adults performed just as well as younger adults in tests involving looking away from an object appearing on the screen. But younger adults acknowledged more often than older adults when they failed to look away from the object. And, older adults were more likely to be adamant that they did not made a mistake.

“The good news is older adults perform the tasks we assigned them just as well as younger adults, albeit more slowly,” says Jan Wessel, assistant professor in the UI Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the study’s corresponding author. “But we find there is this impaired ability in older adults to recognize an error when they’ve made one.”

The research offers new insight how older people perceive their decisions, and especially how they view their performance—whether judging their own ability to drive or how regularly they believe they’ve taken medications.

“Realizing fewer errors can have more severe consequences,” Wessel says, “because you can’t remedy an error that you don’t realize you’ve committed.”

Wessel’s team recruited 38 younger adults (average age of 22) and 39 older adults (average age of 68) to take a series of tests that involved looking away from a circle appearing in a box on one side of a computer screen. While the test was simple, younger adults couldn’t resist glancing at the circle before shifting their gaze about 20 percent of the time on average. That’s expected, Wessel says, as it’s human nature to focus on something new or unexpected, and the researchers wanted the participants to err.

After each failed instance, the participants were asked whether they had made an error. They then were asked “how sure” and used a sliding scale from “unsure” to “very sure” to determine how confident they were about whether they had made a mistake in the test.

The younger participants were correct in acknowledging when they had erred 75 percent of the time. The older test-takers were correct 63 percent of the time when asked whether they had erred. That means in more than one-third of instances, the older participants didn’t realize they had made a mistake.

Even more, the younger participants who made an error on the test were far less certain than the older participants that they were correct. In other words, the younger adults hedged more.

“It shows when the younger adults thought they were correct, but in fact had made an error, they still had some inkling that they might have erred,” says Wessel, who is affiliated with the Department of Neurology and the Iowa Neuroscience Institute. “The older adults often have no idea at all that they were wrong.”

The researchers underscored these observations by measuring how much participants’ pupils dilated as they took the tests. In humans and most animals, pupils dilate when something unexpected occurs—triggered by surprise, fright, and other core emotions. It also happens when people think they’ve blundered, which is why researchers measured pupils in the experiments.

Researchers found younger adults’ pupils dilated when they thought they erred. This effect was reduced when they committed errors they did not recognize. In comparison, older adults showed a strong reduction of this pupil dilation after errors that they recognized and showed no dilation at all when they committed an error they did not recognize.

“That mirrors what we see in the behavioral observations,” Wessel says, “that more often they don’t know when they’ve made an error.”

The paper, “A blunted phasic autonomic response to errors indexes age-related deficits in error awareness,” was published online in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.

Source : University of Iowa


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