Does prayer work?

An American study has investigated the effect of prayer on patients undergoing heart surgery. Three hundred and seventy-one heart surgery patients who were prayed for by 12 religious congregations fared no better in the six months after their operation than 377 patients who were not prayed for. However, lead researcher Mitchell Krucoff at Duke University told Reuters that “This is not ‘God failed the test’ or ‘God passed the test’…it’s way too early”.

Other patients in the study received pre-surgery treatment from a ‘Healing Touch’ therapist, and were taught breathing exercises, visualised being in a peaceful place and played calming music. These patients were more likely to be alive six months after their operation and suffered far less distress than other patients. “We cannot discern with certainty whether the mechanism of this effect relates to the presence of a compassionate human being at the bedside or to any individual component of the treatment”, the researchers admitted.

The researchers pointed to several methodological concerns. For example, most of the participants, including a majority in the no-prayer group, said friends and family would be praying for them. Second, the prayer congregations in this study included Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist groups, but the results may have differed with a uniform prayer group, or if the faith of the people doing the praying had been matched to those being prayed for. There’s also the issue of when the prayers were performed – something not monitored here.

The study was motivated, the researchers wrote, by the fact that “bedside compassion and prayers for the sick” are practised throughout the world and yet scientific quantification of the “methods, mechanisms, safety, and effectiveness” of these practices have barely begun.

Krucoff, M.W., Crater, S.W., Gallup, D., Blankenship, J.C., Cuffe, M., Guarneri, M., Krieger, R.A., Ksheetry, V.R., Morris, K., Oz, M., Pichard, A., Sketch Jr., M.H., Koenig, H.G., Mark, D. & Lee, K.L. (2005). Music, imagery, touch, and prayer as adjuncts to interventional cardiac care: the Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II randomised study. The Lancet, 366, 211-217.
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Child abuse in monkeys

Sadly, children who are abused by their parents are more likely than unharmed children to grow up to become abusive parents themselves. Whether this behaviour is inherited or learned is unclear. Dario Maestripieri at the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre investigated this issue in rhesus macaque monkeys, among whom infant abuse is also known to occur.

To compare the influence of genes vs. experience, Maestripieri used a cross-fostering technique that involved taking a new-born female monkey from her biological mother and passing her within 48 hours of her birth to a different adult female who would raise the infant as her own. Some monkeys born to abusive mothers were passed to a non-abusive foster mother and vice versa. Other monkeys in the experiment were raised by their abusive or non-abusive biological mother as usual. Later on, Maestripieri observed which infants went on to abuse their own offspring.

Maestripieri found no evidence for abusive behaviour being genetically inherited, rather it appeared to be acquired through experience of being abused. Nine of the 16 monkeys who were reared by abusive mothers went on to be abusive themselves, including four adopted monkeys whose biological mother was not an abuser. In contrast, none of the monkeys raised by non-abusive mothers went on to abuse, including six adopted monkeys whose biological mother was an abuser.

Maestripieri said abused female monkeys might learn to be abusive themselves either based on their own direct experience of being abused, or through observation of their mother abusing their younger siblings, or because of neural changes caused by being abused. That not all abused monkeys went on to be abusive themselves also points to other protective or risk factors.

“The availability of a primate model of child maltreatment provides the opportunity not only to conduct research on the causes and consequences of this phenomenon but also to test various forms of intervention and therefore contribute to its prevention”, Maestripieri concluded.

Maestripieri, D. (2005). Early experience affects the intergenerational transmission of infant abuse in rhesus monkeys. Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, USA, 102, 9726-9729.
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Tennis: anticipating your opponent's next shot

Anticipating where your opponent’s shot is going to land is vital for success at games like tennis. There are visual clues from the way your opponent strikes the ball, and it obviously helps to carefully watch the ball’s flight. But another way, investigated by Lionel Crognier and Yves-Andre Fery, is to impose your tactics on the rally, influencing your opponent’s shot so that you can predict where she will play the ball.

To demonstrate this, Crognier and Fery invited 17 experienced tennis players to try and anticipate a passing-shot delivered by an ‘opponent’. Crucially, the participants had to anticipate his shot ‘blind’ because they were wearing liquid-crystal goggles that were made temporarily opaque just as the opponent was performing his back-swing. This prevented them from using anticipatory cues from his stroke or from the flight of the ball. The participants were protected from the ball by rapidly-erected netting that also recorded the ball’s location and where they made their volley.

The participants made the anticipatory volley in three conditions in which they had varying tactical dominance. When the opponent bounced the ball first and then made the passing-shot (low dominance), or when the participants first hit the ball to their opponent as in a warm up (medium dominance) before he played the passing shot, the participants’ anticipation was no better than chance. In contrast, when they rallied before performing an attacking shot at the opponent (high tactical dominance), they anticipated the direction of his subsequent passing-shot with 78 per cent accuracy.

“Expert players can accurately predict the direction of shots provided that they have controlled the rallies”, the researchers said. The advice “read the play” should be added to the traditional instructions “keep your eye on the ball” and “read the opponent’s movements”, they advised. Tennis players may also be interested to note that down-the-line passing shots were anticipated more easily than cross-court shots.

Crognier, L. & Fery, Y-A. (2005). Effect of tactical initiative on predicting passing shots in tennis. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19, 637-649.
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The attitude of casualty staff towards self-harm

Every year in the UK, 150,000 people attend Accident and Emergency (A&E) having deliberately harmed themselves. These are vulnerable people, up to five per cent of whom, based on current rates, will have committed suicide within five to ten years. The staff at A&E are often the only professional contact these patients will have. Yet evidence suggests self-harm patients are unpopular among A&E staff, and in a recent survey self-harm patients rated medical personnel as providing the most unsatisfactory support.

Nadine Mackay and Christine Barrowclough investigated what factors might influence an A&E nurse or doctor’s willingness to help someone who has self-harmed. Eighty-nine A&E nurses and junior doctors working in the Manchester region responded by questionnaire to short accounts about fictitious self-harm patients.

Overall, where self-harming followed an event the A&E staff deemed controllable (e.g. financial problems), they subsequently reported feeling less sympathetic and less willing to help, compared with when it followed an uncontrollable event (e.g. bereavement). The staff also reported feeling less optimistic about patients who had attended A&E after self-harming for the sixth time, compared with patients attending for the first time, and this reduced optimism was associated with less willingness to help.

Doctors reported feeling more irritated by, and less willing to help self-harm patients than did nurses. They also felt less need than nurses for extra training. Male doctors and nurses were also less sympathetic and less willing to help than female staff.

Acknowledging the danger of extrapolating from responses to fictitious accounts, the researchers concluded that A&E staff could benefit from extra training in the management of self-harm patients. “This might be aimed at encouraging staff to examine and challenge their beliefs about the causes of deliberate self-harm and the value of support and treatment that can be provided”, they said.
Mackay, N., Barrowclough, C. (2005). Accident and emergency staff’s perceptions of deliberate self-harm: attributions, emotions and willingness to help. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 44, 255-267.
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Light relief for long-term depression

There’s emerging evidence that sitting near a bright light every morning could help people with depression (see recent Cochrane review). More dubious is the suggestion that ‘negative ion generators’ – gadgets that purportedly increase the concentration of negatively-charged atoms in the atmosphere – might also help relieve depression. Namni Goel at Weslyan University and his team tested both these treatments with 31 patients who had been diagnosed with major depression lasting at least two years.

Patients were tested at different times of the year to control for seasonal effects. Ten patients used a fluorescent lamp and 12 patients used a “high density” ion generator. As a control, 10 patients used a “low density” ion generator that had a negligible effect on the air. Participants were asked to use their allocated treatment for an hour every morning for five weeks. The patients obviously knew whether they’d been allocated to the light treatment or not, but those allocated to the ion generator treatment didn’t know what kind of generator they had (high or low density) and the researchers were blind to which patients were allocated which treatments.

Fifty per cent of patients in the light treatment and high-density ion generator groups experienced remission from their depression, the researchers reported, whereas none of the patients with the low-density generator experienced remission. These effects didn’t depend on the time of year, nor were they explicable by changes to the patients’ body clock (i.e. their circadian rhythm) as measured by melatonin levels in their saliva. The researchers suggested the treatments might work because they raise levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that is also the target of many antidepressant drugs.

“Light and negative air ion therapies may particularly benefit patients who discontinue, cannot tolerate or show inadequate response to medication”, the researchers concluded.

Goel, N., Terman, M., Terman, J.S., Macchi, M.M. & Stewart, J.W. (2005). Controlled trial of bright light and negative air ions for chronic depression. Psychological Medicine, 35, 945-955.
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Abnormal social cognition

To investigate the neuroscience behind socialising, Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg and colleagues have scanned the brains of people with the genetic disorder Williams-Beuren syndrome and compared them with scans of healthy controls. People with Williams syndrome are socially fearless, impulsive, erratic, and highly empathic, but they’re excessively anxious about non-social situations.

Meyer-Lindenberg recruited 13 people with Williams syndrome who were unusual in that they had normal IQ. They and 13 healthy controls were asked to match one of two simultaneously presented faces with a different face that showed the same emotion (angry or afraid). In another task they had to match fearful or threatening scenes. A key difference emerged. The Williams syndrome patients showed increased amygdala activation during the scene task whereas the controls showed increased amygdala activation during the face task. The amygdala is an almond shaped region buried deep in the brain and known to be involved in emotions.

When the researchers investigated circuitry at the front of the brain, they found abnormal or absent regulation of the amygdala by key regions in the prefrontal cortex of the Williams syndrome participants. In particular, the orbitofrontal cortex regulated amygdale functioning in the healthy controls but not in the Williams syndrome participants. And the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was linked to the orbitofrontal cortex in healthy controls but not in the Williams participants.

The researchers said “Together with nonhuman primate findings of increased social but decreased non-social fear after neonatal amygdala lesions, our data suggest the possibility that the opposite pattern of dissociated fear (decreased social fear and increased non-social fear) found in individuals with Williams syndrome may be a consequence of a congenital deficiency in a prefrontal system involved in inhibitory amygdala regulation”.
Meyer-Lindenberg, A., Hariri, A.R., Munoz, K.E., Mervis, C.B., Mattay, V.S., Morris, C.A. & Berman, K.F. (2005). Neural correlates of genetically abnormal social cognition in Williams syndrome. Nature Neuroscience, Advance Online Publication: DOI: 10.1038/nn1494.
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Exploring the library of the mind

How is knowledge about the world organised in our minds? Studies with people whose memory has been affected by brain damage, have pointed to a hierarchy of factual, ‘semantic’ knowledge, in which more general information must be accessed first on the way to more specific information.

Presented with a photo of a dog, patients with semantic dementia will often only be able to identify it as an ‘animal’. Presented with a desk, such patients will only recognise it as ‘furniture’. That is, they seem to have lost their object-specific knowledge but retained their knowledge of higher-order, ‘superordinate’ categories. This has led psychologists to propose that superordinate information is somehow less vulnerable to brain damage.

But now Glyn Humphries and Emer Forde at Birmingham University have reported on a patient, FK, who appears to exhibit the opposite pattern. When he was a 22-year-old student, FK suffered frontal, temporal and occipital brain damage from carbon monoxide poisoning. Now FK is good at naming things at their ‘base-level’ (e.g. dog, desk, hammer), but is severely impaired at matching them with their superordinate categories (e.g. animal, furniture, tool).

This pattern “runs contrary to almost all of the neuropsychological literature on patients with semantic dementia”, the authors said. “The data are clearly inconsistent with strictly hierarchical accounts of semantic memory, in which access to superordinate knowledge is a prerequisite for accessing other forms of knowledge”.

The authors said their findings also challenge the idea that we have different memory stores for each of our senses. Patient FK’s ability to name different items was consistent regardless of whether they were presented to him by sight, sound, or touch. This “fits better with the idea that we have one semantic system…rather than a semantic system differentiated by modality”, they said.

Humphreys, G.W. & Forde, M.E. (2005). Naming a giraffe but not an animal: base-level but not superordinate naming in a patient with impaired semantics. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 22, 539-558.
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Children's understanding of the internet

How much do young children understand about the internet? Zheng Yan at the University of Albany recruited 83 children, aged from 5 to 12 years, to find out how much they used and understood the internet.

Children aged from five to eight years tended to have little online experience, and to be naïve about both the technical and social side of the internet. One five-year-old-boy said “Um, it has two computers on it. It is ten square feet large. It wouldn’t hurt you”.

The children aged between nine and ten appeared to be in a transition phase. They had limited online experience but showed greater awareness of the internet’s uses and dangers. “It’s somewhere for finding stuff”, and is made “of a thousand computers”, one nine-year-old explained. But the internet “can give us bad ideas” a 10-year-old girl warned.

By 11 to 12 years of age, the children reported having extensive online experience and showed a mature understanding of the web. “The internet is in a lot of places and thus no one can point out exactly where it is”, one 12-year-old explained. You can go to “inappropriate sites” or “get addicted”, warned another.

Zheng Yan said that direct online experience was not the only predictor of children’s understanding – experience derived from films, TV, and watching other people was also relevant. “Filtering out harmful online content is not the only strategy to protect children”, Yan advised. “Other strategies such as offering age-appropriate educational programmes via TV and Internet and considering developmental differences to guide online activities can help to increase immunity to internet dangers”, he said.

Yan, Z. (2005). Age differences in children’s understanding of the complexity of the Internet. Applied Developmental Psychology, 26, 385-396.
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The write help for older people

Older people who are depressed, especially those in residential or nursing care homes, could benefit from writing about their lives. Helen Elford at Sheffield University and her colleagues recruited four residents from a nursing home in South Yorkshire. The residents, one man and four women aged between 71 and 89 years, were invited to write in a series of booklets, each containing prompts to reminisce about different aspects of their lives: their childhood, neighbourhood, working days and holidays and outings. Their writings were typed up by the researchers and returned to them in a final, bound booklet.

A month later, one of the participants, a 78-year-old lady called Anne, was interviewed to find out whether she’d found the project helpful. The researchers also kept field notes and the care home manager completed a questionnaire about the project.

Anne enjoyed the reminiscing and after initial anxiety was surprised by how well she had been able to write, and by how much she had remembered. “I thought ‘I’m not capable of doing it’, but you helped me and it came out easily “, she said. The researchers’ field notes revealed the other participants had also enjoyed the project, and that the process had served as a social prop when friends and relatives visited. The care home staff were also impressed by the level of interest shown by the participants. “It surprised me. [You] forget they can write”, the care home manager said.

“There were numerous benefits to the participants from engaging in writing activities, including the fact that it was cathartic, provided a sense of meaning and purpose, an opportunity to exercise writing skills and memory, and a focus for them to share key stories with others”, the researchers concluded. “Providing writing materials is one very simple and inexpensive way in which care settings for older people could increase the opportunities available to them”, they added.

Elford, H., Wilson, F., McKee, K.J., Chung, M.C., Bolton, G. & Goudie, F. (2005). Psychosocial benefits of solitary reminiscence writing: An exploratory study. Ageing and Mental Health, 94, 305-314.
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Investigating the missing participants

An inevitable weakness with psychology research is that so much of it is conducted with people (usually students) who have volunteered. If certain kinds of people routinely opt out of research, it could mean our estimates of what is psychologically average or ‘normal’ are completely off the mark.

Bernd Marcus and Astrid Schūtz at Chemnitz University of Technology tried to find out if people who don’t participate in research have different personalities from people who do. They emailed 685 people, mostly men, who maintained personal web-sites, asking them to participate in an “online study on psychological aspects of personal web pages”. Two hundred and eighty of them agreed to participate.

Over a hundred students, mostly women, then viewed the web-sites of people who had and hadn’t agreed to participate. Without knowing who had volunteered, the students used a web-site’s content to score its owner’s personality on things like sociability, anxiousness, creativity, intelligence, meticulousness and self-adoration – adjectives chosen to tap into the ‘Big Five’ personality factors of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience and conscientiousness.

People who volunteered to participate were rated as more agreeable and more open to experience than those who did not volunteer, even though the student raters were unaware of who had and hadn’t volunteered. “To the degree that these ratings are valid, these differences will translate directly into incorrect normative data in personality assessment”, the authors said. Therefore “…a finding that the sample mean in a given study does not deviate from published norms only applies to volunteers and does not generalise to the full population”, they warned.

Marcus, B. & Schūtz, A. (2005). Who are the people reluctant to participate in research? Personality correlates of four different types of nonresponse as inferred from self- and observer ratings. Journal of Personality, 73, 959-984.
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I swear I'm telling you the truth

Sir Bob Geldof’s penchant for the odd swearword or two, might be a shrewder oratory strategy than we realise. Eric Rassin and Simon Van Der Heijden at Erasmus University in The Netherlands report evidence that people are more likely to rate a statement as believable when it contains swearwords.

First Rassin and Van Der Heijden asked 76 students whether they thought the inclusion of swearing in a statement would increase its credibility or reduce it. Forty-six per cent said it wouldn’t make any difference, 36 per cent thought it would make a statement less credible, and only 16 per cent thought it would increase a statement’s credibility.

But then the researchers asked 70 students to read a fictional account of a statement made by a suspect burglar during a police interview. The 35 students who read the version in which the suspect swore rated his statement as more believable than the 35 students who read a version that was identical in every respect but with the swearwords removed.

In a further study, 54 students read a statement made by an alleged robbery victim. Again, the students who read the version in which the victim swore rated his statements as more believable than the students who read a version without swearwords.

“If one wants to appear more credible, it is recommendable to utter an occasional swearword”, the researchers advised. Quite what my former Headmaster would make of this research, I’m not sure. He once admonished a hushed school assembly that by swearing “you merely belittle yourselves”.

Rassin, E. & Van Der Heijden, S. (2005). Appearing credible? Swearing helps! Psychology, Crime & Law, 11, 177-182.
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Feeling other people's pain

When we watch someone else being pricked by a needle in their hand, the corticospinal motor neurons connected to that specific part of our own hand are inhibited, just as they would be if we’d been injected ourselves. It’s as though our brain has specifically identified where the other person has been hurt and mapped this information onto our own mental body map. The finding adds to an emerging picture that suggests we empathise with other people’s pain by simulating their suffering in our own central nervous system.

Alessio Avenanti and his team applied transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to their participants’ heads, over the motor cortex, and observed how much electrical activity this triggered in the participants’ hand muscles. The amount of activity the TMS triggered in a participant’s hand muscle was reduced when they watched a video of someone being injected in that same hand region, but not when they watched a foot injection, a tomato being injected or a non-painful cue tip being used instead.

“We suggest the effect may be due to activation of a pain resonance system that extracts basic sensory aspects of the model’s (i.e. other person’s) painful experience and maps them onto the observer’s motor system according to topographic rules”, the researchers said.

Pain is thought to be closely linked to our brain’s action systems so that we can freeze suddenly or flee quickly – whichever is better for our survival. Now this study has shown that other people’s pain also affects our brain’s action systems. “Philosophers have emphasised that our bodily sensations are intrinsically private”, the researchers concluded. “However, our findings suggest that, at least in humans, the social dimension of pain extends even to the very basic, sensorimotor levels of neural processing”.

Avenanti, A., Bueti, D., Galati, G. & Aglioti, S.M. (2005). Transcranial magnetic stimulation highlights the sensorimotor side of empathy for pain. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 955-960.
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