The God ingredient

Meditation can reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure and improve mental health, thus relieving the harmful effects of stress. But does it matter whether the meditation is spiritual in nature or not? A study by Amy Wachholtz and Kenneth Pargament at Bowling Green State University suggests it does. They trained 25 student participants in spiritual meditation and 21 participants in secular meditation. The two groups received identical training except that the spiritual group were instructed to concentrate on a phrase such as “God is joy”, or “God is love” whereas the secular group were instructed to concentrate on a phrase such as “I am content” or “I am joyful”. Before the training, participants in the two groups did not differ on demographics or spirituality. A control group of 22 participants were taught to relax and to avoid stressful thoughts. All participants were then asked to practise their technique for 20 minutes a day for two weeks.

After two weeks, the spiritual meditation group reported lower anxiety, more positive mood, and greater spirituality than the secular meditation and control groups. Moreover, the spiritual group participants were able to withstand holding their hand in icy water (a measure of pain tolerance) for twice as long as the other participants. “The current study suggested that spiritual therapeutic techniques may be more effective than secular techniques”, the authors said.

"...the spiritual group participants were able to withstand holding their hand in icy water for twice as long as the other participants"

Elizabeth Valentine at Royal Holloway, University of London told New Scientist magazine the finding could be explained by a placebo effect. “Participants in the spiritual group might simply have expected benefits because they were practicing 'real' meditation", she said. But lead author Amy Wachholtz rejected this argument. She told the Digest: “It is unlikely that the effects were simply due to placebo because of the inclusion of the secular meditation condition. It is interesting that Professor Valentine described the spiritual meditation practice as the ‘real’ meditation practice, given that all participants received the exact same training in meditation. There are a number of meditation practices in both the popular culture and in use by psychologists that are described as secular forms of meditation. Therefore assignment to a secular meditation practice would not necessarily be deemed a lesser or unusual meditation practice by participants”.

Wachholtz, A.B. & Pargament, K.I. (2005). Is spirituality a critical ingredient of meditation? Comparing the effects of spiritual meditation, secular meditation, and relaxation on spiritual, psychological, cardiac, and pain outcomes. Journal of Behavioural Medicine, In Press. DOI: 10.1007/s10865-005-9008-5.
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The right teaching

Given the right support from their teacher, five to six-year-old children who are struggling at school can be prevented from falling further behind year on year. Whereas most previous research has tended to focus on class size and teacher-to-pupil ratios, Bridget Hamre and Robert Pianta (University of Virginia) looked at the effect of teaching style and emotional support.

Among 910 children at 747 schools, the researchers identified those at risk of struggling either because of their family background, determined by the length of their mother’s education, or because of their poor behaviour in class during their first year at school, including struggling to concentrate, getting into fights and being disobedient.

At-risk pupils who received high emotional support and more instructional teaching performed just as well as their low-risk peers on measures of academic achievement at the end of their second school year. In contrast, at-risk pupils in classes that lacked these teaching styles performed more poorly than their peers at the end of the second year. Specifically, children thought to be at risk because of their background benefited from teachers who provided plenty of literary instruction, and who engaged them in thoughtful discussion and encouraged them to expand their own ideas. Children considered at risk because of their earlier behaviour benefited from a teacher who was sensitive to their individual needs, who was able to manage class behaviour without using many control techniques, and who fostered a happy classroom climate in which the pupils enjoyed themselves, and in which the teacher showed warmth and positive regard.

“Taken together, these findings provide evidence of the potential for schools to moderate children’s risk of academic and relational problems”, the authors concluded.

Hamre, B.K. & Pianta, R.C. (2005). Can instructional and emotional support in the first-grade classroom make a difference for children at risk of school failure? Child Development, 76, 949-967.
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An ignoring impairment

As part of the normal ageing process, some older people show an impairment in their ability to ignore information that is irrelevant to the task at hand, but their ability to enhance processing of relative stimuli remains intact. Adam Gazzaley (pictured) at the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues presented 17 healthy younger participants (aged 19 to 30) and 16 healthy older participants (aged 60 to 77 years) with alternating photos of faces and outdoor scenes. The participants were instructed to either remember the faces, the scenes or to passively observe both. Their brains were scanned by fMRI throughout.

"...older individuals are able to focus on pertinent information but are overwhelmed by interference from failure to ignore distracting information, resulting in memory impairment for the relevant information"

When instructed to remember the outdoor scenes, all the participants, young and old, showed enhanced activity in the left parahippocampal/lingual gyrus – a brain area associated with processing scenes – as they viewed the photos. However, when instructed to remember the faces (and ignore the scenes), 88 per cent of the younger participants showed suppressed activity in the brain area that processes scenes compared with only 44 per cent of the older participants. Crucially, this suppression deficit was linked to actual memory performance. When the older participants’ memory for the faces was tested seconds later, those whose memory was poorer than the younger controls showed the suppression deficit, whereas those whose memory was equal to the controls did not.

“These data suggest that [some] older individuals are able to focus on pertinent information but are overwhelmed by interference from failure to ignore distracting information, resulting in memory impairment for the relevant information”, the researchers said.

The researchers drew encouragement from the fact that not all the older participants showed the suppression deficit. “Future studies should seek to elucidate the factors contributing to successful ageing and preserved top-down modulation…”, they said.

Gazzaley, A., Cooney, J.W., Rissman, J. & D’Esposito, M. (2005). Top-down suppression deficit underlies working memory impairment in normal ageing. Nature Neuroscience. Advance Online Publication. DOI: 10.11038/nn1543.
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The long-term benefits of CBT for schizophrenia

Not only can cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) provide sufferers of schizophrenia with additional benefits above and beyond those gained from taking anti-psychotic medication, but some of these benefits continue to persist two years later. Furthermore, the extra expense of providing cognitive behavioural therapy to these patients is offset by money saved from the patients spending less time in hospital.

Mike Startup (University of Newcastle, Australia) and colleagues at the University of Wales, UK, recruited 90 patients with schizophrenia spectrum disorder who had been admitted to hospital suffering from an acute episode of psychosis. Forty-three of them were given treatment-as-usual, which included anti-psychotic medication and nursing care. Forty-seven of them were additionally given up to 25 90-minute sessions of CBT provided by one of three clinical psychologists.

A previous study found that a year after their hospital admission, those patients given CBT on top of treatment-as-usual had fewer positive symptoms (hallucinations and delusions), fewer negative symptoms (for example apathy and lack of emotion) and better social functioning. Now Startup’s team have managed to test 73 per cent of the original sample two years after their hospital admission, and they’ve found that the CBT group still enjoy fewer negative symptoms and better social functioning than the treatment-as-usual group. Moreover, they estimated that the extra cost of providing CBT (average of £769 per patient over the two years) was compensated by savings gained by the CBT patients tending to spend less time in hospital (estimated £2704 average saving per patient).

“CBT for patients with schizophrenia who have been admitted to hospital as a result of an acute psychotic episode is likely to be no more expensive than routine care, but should secure for those patients advantages in terms of negative symptoms and social functioning which persist for at least two years”, the researchers concluded.

Startup, M., Jackson, M.C., Evans, K.E. & Bendix, S. (2005). North Wales randomised controlled trial of cognitive behaviour therapy for acute schizophrenia spectrum disorders: two-year follow-up and economic evaluation.Psychological Medicine, 35, 1307-1316.
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Hemispheric bias shifts with tiredness

Normally we have a slight bias to the left-hand side of space. So if we’re asked to mark the centre of a line, for example, we tend to overestimate the length of the left-hand portion. Now Tom Manly (pictured) at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge and colleagues have shown that as we grow tired this bias is shifted over to the right-hand side. The finding could have implications for the treatment uni-lateral spatial neglect – an inability to attend to things on one side of space that often affects people after they’ve had a stroke.

Manly’s team tested 10 healthy volunteers who worked shifts at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. They were presented with horizontal lines with a vertical divider and were asked to say which half of the line was longer. When they’d just come on shift they showed the usual bias of overestimating the left-hand portion, but at the end of a shift they showed the opposite bias. In a second study, six volunteers from the authors’ own MRC research unit performed a similar task for 60 minutes. As the task wore on, their spatial bias shifted from the left to the right. The findings complement previous work showing uni-lateral neglect following stroke can be worse when patients are tired.

“Our findings suggest that the dramatic effects on conscious awareness resulting from damage to [fronto-parietal] networks in patients and the subsequent modulation [of their neglect] with changes in alertness, may be echoed in a much milder form in healthy participants”, the authors said.

Manly, T. Dobler, V.B., Dodds, C.M. & George, M.A. (2005). Rightward shift in spatial awareness with declining alertness. Neuropsychologia, 43, 1721-1728.
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Sex doesn't sell

The late Mary Whitehouse, famed campaigner for traditional morals and decency, would have approved of this new study by Brad Bushman at the University of Michigan showing that adverts embedded in violent and/or sexual TV programmes are less effective than adverts embedded in more family-oriented entertainment.

Bushman asked 336 adult volunteers aged between 18 and 54 to watch either a violent programme like ‘24’, starring Keifer Sutherland; a sexy programme like ‘Sex in The City’; a violent and sexy programme like ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’; or a family programme like ‘America’s funniest animals’. Halfway through the programmes he embedded the same twelve, 30-second ads for some fairly obscure, branded products, including sugar substitute and plasters.

Afterwards, those participants who watched the ‘violent’, ‘sexy’, or ‘violent and sexy’ programmes were less likely than viewers of the family programmes to recall the names of the brands that had been advertised; were less likely to say they intended to buy the advertised brands in the future; and given the choice of some fake money-off vouchers for a range of obscure brands at the study end, were less likely to choose vouchers for the advertised brands. This pattern of results held regardless of the participants’ age, gender or whether or not they enjoyed the programme they’d watched.

Taken together with research showing violent and sexual programmes may have a detrimental effect on society, and considering most TV depends on advertising revenue, Bushman said that to advertise in such programmes might be “bad for society and bad for the advertiser’s business”.

Bushman, B.J. (2005). Violence and sex in television programmes do not sell products in advertisements. Psychological Science, 16, 702-708.
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Driven to distraction

The UK law introduced in 2003 banning the use of handheld mobile phones while driving presupposes that it’s the handling aspect of mobile use that’s dangerous rather than the communication aspect. Now a study by psychologists at the University of Illinois has added to the evidence showing that hands-free phones could be dangerous too.

"’s the cognitive demands associated with communication via wireless phones, rather than use of the phone itself, that interferes with driving performance".

Dozens of students sat at the wheel of a driving simulator and aimed to maintain their lane position and speed as steadily as possible. While driving, they sometimes had to complete a second task that involved either judging the accuracy of statements about the relative location of two campus buildings (speech comprehension), or they had to repeatedly describe the relative location of different campus buildings (speech production).

When performing either of the secondary tasks, the students were less able to maintain a steady speed or maintain a steady distance behind another vehicle, compared with when they were driving without distraction. The authors said their results support the notion that “it’s the cognitive demands associated with communication via wireless phones, rather than use of the phone itself, that interferes with driving performance”.

Paradoxically, however, the students were better at maintaining their lane position when engaged in the language production task, compared with just driving, or driving and listening. “One interpretation of this result is that better lane maintenance while speaking was due to active prioritisation of lane maintenance in response to the perceived greater difficulty of speaking”, the researchers said.

Kubose, T.T., Bock, K., Dell, G.S., Garnsey, S.M., Kramer, A.F. & Mayhugh, J. (2005). The effects of speech production and speech comprehension on simulated driving performance. Applied Cognitive Psychology, In Press. DOI: 10.1002/acp.1164.
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Tests on test

Increasingly, employers in the UK are using cognitive ability tests to help them recruit the best candidates. Now Cristina Bertua and colleagues have performed the first ever meta-analysis of UK research looking at how accurately these tests predict candidate employees’ subsequent work and training performance once they’ve got the job. Meta-analysis is a technique used for combining the results of multiple studies.

From a search of the literature dating from the 1950s, Bertua’s team found 56 individual papers and books containing relevant data. This amounted to 283 independent samples comparing 13,262 people’s scores on different cognitive tests with their later job performance, and 223 independent samples comparing 75,311 people’s test scores with their later success at job training.

"...HR professionals in UK organisations should be encouraged to use psychometrically developed cognitive ability tests..."

The researchers found cognitive tests strongly predicted employees’ work and training performance, across all different job types investigated: clerical, engineer, professional, driver, operator, manager and sales. Both general mental ability tests and more specific tests (e.g. perceptual tests) predicted job performance. There was a tendency for the tests to be stronger predictors of performance for more complex jobs. The authors said: “Practitioners may believe, and indeed may have experienced, that such tests are less popular for senior appointments due to a misbelieve that they lack job-related validity; the results of our meta-analysis on a large sample of UK occupational groups strongly refutes this erroneous belief”.

In conclusion, the researchers advised: “Selection practitioners and HR professionals in UK organisations should be encouraged to use psychometrically developed cognitive ability tests regardless of job type, hierarchical seniority, potential future changes in job role composition, or whether the tests are principally for general or specific cognitive abilities”.
Bertua, C., Anderson, N. & Salgado, J.F. (2005). The predictive validity of cognitive ability tests: a UK meta-analysis. Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, In Press. DOI: 10.11348/096317905X26994.
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Student finances and health

A study investigating the link between student finances and health has found British students have more debt, more financial worries and poorer health than their Finnish counterparts (despite the countries having similar health standards overall according to WHO figures). In Britain, student tuition fees have been introduced and maintenance grants abolished. In Finland, by contrast, there are no tuition fees, and students receive grants and housing benefit. The study found that in both countries it was a student’s financial anxieties rather than their actual debt, that was related to poorer mental and physical health. As well as having more financial worries and poorer health, British students were also more likely to have a part-time job, and were more likely to smoke, and to smoke more, than were the Finnish students.

The authors concluded that “Unless [UK] government policy changes dramatically, understanding which factors mediate the apparent impact of financial concerns on health is essential if successful interventions are to be implemented to minimise the negative impact of student hardship and improve health outcomes”. The authors caution that their correlational design means it is possible that health influences financial concern rather than the other way around, and they call on longitudinal work to clarify the situation.

The results were derived from questionnaires completed by 89 British students at Middlesex University and 98 Finnish students at university in Vaasa and Turku.

Jessop, D.C., Herberts, C. & Solomon, L. (2005). The impact of financial circumstances on student health. British Journal of Health Psychology, In Press. DOI: 10.1348/135910705X25480.
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Humans don't smell that bad

Watch any dog sniffing its way down the street and it’s obvious they’re expert at localising smells. They seem to know which direction a smell is coming from, much as we do with sounds and, of course, sights. We can certainly tell where a smell is by moving nearer or further from it. But once a smell reaches our nostrils, it’s not at all clear whether or not we can then say immediately which direction it came from.

One way to do that would be to compare the relative intensity of smells hitting each of our nostrils. After all, to judge spatial distances, we compare the discrepancy between visual information hitting our two eyes, and to source sounds, we use the volume discrepancy between our ears.

Jess Porter and colleagues at the University of Berkeley designed a special mask that could deliver smells to one nostril at a time. They tested 16 participants on a range of odours and found they could say which side the smell was on with 75 per cent accuracy – far better than chance performance.

"We conclude that humans can spatially localise an odorant to the left or right..."

They also took advantage of their clever apparatus to find out for the first time which brain areas were active when participants were judging the location of a smell, as opposed to identifying what the smell was. They found an area in primary olfactory context, in which greater activity was correlated with better accuracy on the localisation task. They also found an area in the superior temporal gyrus that was activated more in the localisation than the identification of odours. The same region has also been implicated in auditory and visual localisation, suggesting it may be involved in using multisensory information to localise stimuli in space. Brain areas activated more by odour identification than localisation included the postcentral gyrus, and an area spanning several occipital gyri (gyri are the bulges in the cerebral cortex, sucli are the ‘valleys’).

“We conclude that humans can spatially localise an odorant to the left or right, this ability may be subserved by nostril specific receptive fields within the primary olfactory cortex, as well as mechanisms of cross-modal integration in the superior temporal gyrus”, the authors said.

Writing in the same journal issue, Jay Gottfried of Northwestern University, said “these tantalising results are sure to arouse a vigorous response in the olfactory psychophysics community, and it will be exciting to see how the story of odour source localisation unfolds”.

Porter, J., Anand, T., Johnson, B., Khan, R.M. & Sobel, N. (2005). Brain mechanisms for extracting spatial information from smell. Neuron, 47, 581-592.
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Dating a psychopath

Most of what we know about psychopathy comes from studies with people diagnosed as psychopathic who have been incarcerated, to protect others and/or themselves. Consequently, people who have the personality characteristics of a psychopath, but who have not (yet) been imprisoned for crimes or violent acts, have been little researched until now. To find out more about this group, Christine Kirkman at Bolton University interviewed twenty women (average age 48 years), recruited via newspaper advertisements, who rated their partners as psychopathic according to the Hare P-SCAN scale, a 90-item questionnaire used by police and social workers to screen for psychopathic traits. The recruitment adverts mentioned a soap opera story line, popular at the time, that involved a psychopathic character. “Were you duped like Deidre?”, the adverts asked.

Twenty-three recurring themes emerged from interviews with the women, each of which was mentioned by at least half the interviewees. Further themes also emerged from analysis of letters written by the women in response to the newspaper advert. The themes related to the way the women’s partners behaved and included: talking the women into victimisation; lying and use of false identities; economic abuse; emotional and physical torture; multiple infidelities; isolation and coercion; physical/sexual assault and/or rape; and the mistreatment of children. One woman recalled having petrol poured over her before being raped by her match-wielding husband. Kirkman was struck by the similarity and consistency between the interviewees’ accounts. Most of the women’s partners had been charged with crimes, usually of a fraudulent nature, consistent with Hervey Cleckley’s seminal description of psychopathy – “The Mask of Sanity”, originally published in 1941.

“Although the male partners were not assessed, it became evident while conducting this study that there are males living amongst us who have the characteristics associated with psychopathy”, Kirkman said. Of course, it can’t be ruled out that some of these women had vivid imaginations and/or paranoid dispositions.

Kirkman, C.A. (2005). From soap opera to science: Towards gaining access to the psychopaths who live amongst us. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, In Press. DOI: 10.1348/147608305X26666.
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UK hospital consultants feeling the strain

UK hospital consultants are experiencing poorer mental health and more burnout than they did in 1994. That’s according to Cath Taylor and colleagues who surveyed hundreds of consultants in 1994 and then again in 2002. They used the 12-item General Health Questionnaire, which includes questions on the participant’s ability to concentrate, their mood, stress and confidence. Participants also completed questionnaires relating to job stress, burnout and job satisfaction. Eight hundred and eighty-two consultants completed the survey in 1994, 517 of the same consultants then completed the survey in 2002, plus 791 others.

"...job satisfaction can protect against the detrimental effects of job stress"

Overall, 32 per cent of the sample reported poor levels of mental health in 2002, compared with 27 per cent of the sample in 1994. The prevalence of burnout had increased from 32 to 42 per cent, and job stress from 37 to 41 per cent. Broken down by medical speciality, these changes were significant for clinical and surgical oncologists, but not for gastroenterologists, radiologists or medical oncologists. The pattern could be explained by the fact the clinical and surgical oncologists reported the increased job stress, but not the increased job satisfaction, reported by the other specialists. Previous work by the study’s authors has shown that job satisfaction can protect against the detrimental effects of job stress.

“The deterioration in the mental health of UK consultants we report is cause for concern to the consultants themselves, to their families, and to the patients for whom they provide care”, the authors said.

The NHS has changed a lot in recent years following increased government investment and reform. The workforce has grown, employment contracts have changed, targets have been introduced, as have formal procedures for consultant appraisal. “The changes that have occurred in the NHS over the [study’s] 8-year period aim to benefit patients, but appear to have a negative effect on the working lives of consultants”, the study concludes.
Taylor, C., Graham, J., Potts, H.W.W., Richards, M.A. & Ramirez, A.J. (2005). Changes in mental health of UK hospital consultants since the mid-1990s. The Lancet, 366, 742-744.
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