Why a broken heart really hurts The secret of how our mind processes emotional pain ought to change our outlook, says psychologist Sian Beilock

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Source: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/sep/13/why-a-broken-heart-really-hurts

Social exclusion is a normal part of life. We have all, at one time or another, felt disliked at work, spurned by a partner or snubbed by friends. Even though it’s unpleasant, social rejection seems pretty different from a physical injury. Yet these experiences share a common biological substrate in the brain.

For decades, neuroscientists have been aware that a specific brain circuit is involved in registering physical pain. Whether you get pricked with a needle or sprain your ankle, many of the same neural circuits come alive to process the pain: the insula, the cingulate cortex and the somatosensory cortex. Scientists have discovered that some of those same neural tissues also give rise to painful feelings and emotions. In other words: we understand “hurt feelings” or a “broken heart” physically.

In 2003 two UCLA neuroscientists, Naomi Eisenberger and Matt Lieberman, asked volunteers to take part in a computer game known as Cyberball. Cyberball appears to be a virtual game of catch with two other players whose computer is networked to the volunteer’s. The volunteer can’t see the other people playing but he’s told their names, ages, their interests and backgrounds. The three play catch, but at some point the other two players stop including the volunteer, tossing the ball only to each other. He can only sit and watch as he’s excluded.

In reality, there aren’t any other players; the game is controlled by a computer. But the volunteers don’t know this. While the volunteer played and then was excluded from the game, scientists peered inside his brain and discovered that part of the neural pain matrix – specifically the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) – came alive. Along with its role in processing negative emotions, the ACC acts as a neural alarm system, giving rise to the realisation that something is wrong. (The ACC is often talked about as our “Oh, shit” sensor.) Physical pain, the most basic signal that there is a problem, activates this brain area.

Evolution’s solution to our need for caretaking has instilled in us a need for social connection and a sense of distress when those connections are severed. Because the brain doesn’t always make a clear distinction between physical and social pain, some of the ways we go about alleviating physical pain can help lessen social pain. When people take paracetamol over the course of several weeks, they report less daily social pain, and their brain is less reactive to social rejection.

Understanding the link between the mental and the physical can give us clues about how best to interact with others. At work, for instance, blaming a colleague for a failed project may trigger a cascade of neural responses in their pain matrix: a response likely to result in less productivity. When our social alarm systems are triggered, we have less brainpower to think about the task at hand. But when we feel connected, we work better. So fostering relationships that help teams of people feel connected might do more to boost work performance. In other words, those team-building exercises that encourage you to feel more physically trusting towards your colleague? They may help you feel more mentally connected, too.

Our mental and physical worlds cannot be carved up into neat, separate boxes. Most people take care not to cause each other physical pain – perhaps a better understanding of how our minds work will encourage us to take more care not to cause emotional distress, either.

How The Body Knows its Mind by Sian Beilock is published by Constable & Robinson at £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39, go to bookshoptheguardian.com

The nudge theory and beyond: how people can play with your mind. The first instalment of our new psychology column looks at how mental manipulation can be backed by good intentions – but when used with stealth, it is deceitful and wrong

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Source: http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2015/sep/12/nudge-theory-mental-manipulation-wrong

wine cartoon
Would smaller wine glasses make us drink less alcohol? Illustration: Adam Howling for the Observer

A couple of decades ago, a class of psychology undergraduates played a mean trick on their lecturer. The students on the right side of the room gently nodded, smiled, and looked thoughtful, while those on the left seemed bored and glum. Before long, the unsuspecting lecturer was addressing the “right” students with enthusiasm, with only the odd uncomfortable glance to the rest. On some secret sign, the students changed roles – and the lecturer duly switched to addressing students to the left. Memories are vague on how often the hapless lecturer was pushed to and fro.

The students’ hilarity was no doubt considerable, especially as the trick used one of the key principles they were being taught: that pigeons, rats or lecturers do more of what is rewarded, and less of what is punished. But how did the lecturer feel when the trick was revealed? In his shoes, I imagine myself trying to summon a brave laugh, but feeling pretty dreadful. Even where no malice is intended, the sense of having been manipulated is hurtful indeed.

University lecturers, like the rest of us, can change their behaviour according to the audience.
University lecturers, like the rest of us, can change their behaviour according to the audience. Photograph: Sipa Press / Rex Features/Sipa Press / Rex Features

So what is manipulation, and why do we hate it? I think it is best viewed as behaviour with the purpose of influencing another person, but which works only if that purpose is concealed. For example, the secret planning of the students’ smiles and frowns was crucial to their scheme’s success. It is the secrecy that really outrages us (with a tinge of humiliation, perhaps, because we were taken in). Manipulation is a form of deceit.

I was reminded of this in a recent talk by the guru of persuasion research,Professor Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University. He eloquently summarised the key forces that persuade us, including the principle that we tend to believe people we like. At the end of his talk, he said he had deliberately begun his presentation with a broad smile: to make us like us like him and, crucially, therefore to believe him.

I felt an inward shudder; I’d been manipulated, perhaps all too effectively. Of course, this was manipulation with the best of intentions. The secret of the trick was freely shared to help us understand, and guard against, the power of manipulation. But still the shudder remained.

Cialdini was speaking at the recent Behavioural Exchange conference in London, which brought together many of the world’s most celebrated psychologists, behavioural economists and policy-makers to consider how understanding human behaviour can help make governments work better. This sounds innocuous enough. Whether creating aircraft controls, computer interfaces or smartphones, it is a basic principle of design to work with the grain of the human mind, not against it. Why should it be any different for government policy?

The results of the research are intriguing. We heard from the “Nudge Unit”, a spin-out from the cabinet office, how tiny tweaks in government communication may increase the success rates of ethnic minority applicants to join the police; can help people to take vital medications; or pay their taxes on time. Research by Cornell University’s Brian Wansinck, who spoke at the meeting, shows that, for example, we eat more ice-cream when we have a larger bowl – and still more when wielding a larger spoon.

Could smaller cones persuade us to eat less ice cream?
Could smaller cones persuade us to eat less ice cream? Photograph: Woods Wheatcroft/Corbis

With rising levels of obesity and diabetes, perhaps government should tell manufacturers to produce smaller scoops, smaller bowls, and perhaps smaller ice-cream tubs, packs of sugary or fattening foods, less capacious wine-glasses and smaller bottles of alcoholic drinks. Could these, and many other “nudges”, gently steer us to healthier and happier lives, without resorting to punitive taxes or even outright bans on the offending foodstuffs?

But for many of us here is also a sense of disquiet. Doesn’t putting these psychological insights, however well-meaning, into government policy amount to state manipulation of the people? Yet once we understand the nature of manipulation, the remedy is clear. Avoiding it means avoiding deception: a good, honest, nudge is one that works even when we know we are being nudged, and why. But the spell cast by a bad, manipulative, nudge is broken as soon as its secret is revealed.

Suppose that one of the psychology students had leaked their plan before the lecture. Then the lecturer would have been laughing and his audience feeling foolish as they went through their routine of synchronised, but strangely ineffective, facial expressions. Or suppose Cialdini had announced: “Now I’m going to smile broadly, so that you like me and believe everything I say.” That would surely have been horribly counterproductive.

But which nudges still work, even when they are out in the open? Do we still eat less ice-cream with a bowl labelled “smaller bowls for smaller servings”? The research remains to be done. On the one hand, we might think: “How thoughtful, this is a great way to save myself from over-indulgence.” A good nudge. But we might react with irritation and have an extra helping to “fight back”.

So the upshot is: let’s say no to manipulation – that is, to influence by stealth or deception. This should apply to how governments treat us, and to how we treat each other. (And, just in case any of my students are reading this, it also means no tricks on lecturers.)

Nick Chater is professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School.

Blue moods may be connected to our perception of the colour. Dopamine, which stimulates the pleasure centre in the brain, is also involved in transmitting visual information

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Source: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/sep/12/moods-affect-colour-blue-perception

“Feeling blue” might be more than just a metaphor. Indeed, how we feel about the world can play a huge role in how we see it, according to a study in the journal Psychological Science. Feeling sad can keep us from seeing in certain colours, as though we live in Dorothy’s Kansas. But a good mood can bring those colours back into the world, just like a tornado trip to Oz.
“We were already deeply familiar with how often people use colour terms to describe common phenomena, like mood, even when these concepts seem unrelated,” the study’s lead author Christopher Thorstenson said in a statement for the Association for Psychological Science. “We thought that maybe a reason these metaphors emerge was because there really was a connection between mood and perceiving colours in a different way.”

Thorstenson was right. All it took was a clip from a cartoon to make people start seeing differently.

Participants in the study, which took place at the University of Rochester in New York, were invited to watch the two-minute scene from The Lion King in which Mufasa is killed. To the mournful strains of Elton John’s score, they watched Simba’s eyes widen and fill with tears as he nuzzled against his fallen father. The clip, which apparently is often used in psychology studies, is scientifically proven to induce irresistible sadness at the plight of the orphaned lion cub.

Others participants were shown a clip from a stand-up comedy routine or a neutral screen saver.

Once they felt sufficiently gloomy, cheerful or completely unmoved, depending on which clip they saw, the participants were put to the test. Each was presented with a series of washed-out colour swatches, so desaturated they were nearly grey, and asked to identify what colour they were.

While the amused and neutral groups’ ability to discern colours remained unaffected, the Disney-watching crowd had trouble distinguishing swatches on the blue-yellow axis. (The eye’s colour-encoding matrix ranks light on two axes – from red to green and from blue to yellow – and then sorts it into what we recognise as colour.)

That only blue-yellow perception was affected, and only among the sad group, is significant.

Psychologists believe that perception along the blue-yellow axis is linked to the neurotransmitter dopamine, Thorstenson told the Association for Psychological Science. Dopamine is the chemical signal that transmits information from neuron to neuron, stimulating the pleasure and reward centres of the brain. It’s responsible for the flush of excitement an addict feels at the sight of a drug and the thrill of an explorer ascending a mountain for the first time, and its absence is associated with apathy, lack of motivation and hopelessness.

Our results show that mood and emotion can affect how we see the world around us
Christopher Thorstenson, study’s lead author
Thorstenson’s study suggests that sadness affects dopamine’s other tasks – among them, transmitting visual information about blue and yellow light.

A similar phenomenon has been found in patients with ADHD, who have low dopamine levels and sometimes struggle to perceive the colour blue.

But the study’s findings go beyond colour.

They’re a reminder that our experience of the world is not as immediate and objective as we’d like to believe. It’s easy to assume that cognition – what we think and feel – is a rational response to perception, that we intake information from our senses, process it, and then draw conclusions from that data.


But some psychologists believe that our understanding of the world happens “top-down” as much as “bottom-up”. In other words, higher-level cognition can determine what and how we perceive. Rather than seeing the world as it really is, our perceptions are coloured – literally – by emotions and expectations.

But this notion is debated – a recent study from Yale argued that many studies purporting to show a “top-down” effect are flawed.

“The possibility of top-down effects on perception is tremendously exciting,” the study’s author’s wrote. “Accordingly, though, the bar for a suitably compelling top-down effect should be high. Until this high bar is met, it will remain eminently plausible that there are no top-down effects of cognition on perception.”

Still, findings like Thorstenson’s pop up a lot, and in his conversation with the Association for Psychological Science he was convinced.

“Our results show that mood and emotion can affect how we see the world around us,” he said.

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from the Washington Post
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