Neuroscience Around the Web – Issue 19

Each week I publish a "Week in Review" for our students and alumni where I summarize exciting new developments in psychology and neuroscience. Here are five of the most interesting items from recent weeks:

The pandemic did not affect mental health as we had originally expected.

Worldwide, for most people, the pandemic did not affect mental health as we had originally expected. It's true that early in the pandemic psychological distress climbed dramatically but "overall psychological distress returned to near-pre-pandemic levels by early summer 2020." "People are more resilient than they themselves realize. We imagine that negative life events—losing a job or a romantic partner—will be devastating for months or years. When people actually experience these losses, however, their misery tends to fade far faster than they imagined it would." "Human beings possess what some researchers call a psychological immune system, a host of cognitive abilities that enable us to make the best of even the worst situation."

Good news for introverts!

In many organizations, with working from home this past year and a half, introverts are finally being recognized for the strengths they bring: empathy and analytical thinking, among others.

"The workplace was created by extroverts, for extroverts. Open-concept offices are the worst offenders." " Introverts pay a price for each social interaction throughout the day. That cost dipped considerably with the shift to remote work."

The remote work environment allowed introverts to play to their strengths.

The hippocampus doesn't just consolidate memories

Here's why we shouldn't assume that specific functions are attached to only one brain region, or that a brain region does only one thing: Scientists have been noticing that patterns of neuronal firing drift from one moment to the next. In a study that had mice sniff the same odors over several days and weeks, each odor caused a distinctive group of neurons in the piriform cortex to fire. But, as time went on, the make up of the groups slowly started to change so that after a month, each group of neurons was almost completely different. The neurons that represented the smell of an apple in May, for example, and those that represented the same smell in June were completely different.
The drift occurs in a variety of brain regions (e.g. the hippocampus, parietal cortex, etc.) and scientists don't know why it happens, what it means, how the brain copes, or how much of the brain behaves in this way. There are a number of hypotheses about why the brain behaves this way.

Spending time outdoors changes brain structure

Time spent outdoors affects mood and brain structure. The researchers scanned 6 participants 40-60 times over a period of 6-8 months. Here's what they found: Time spent outdoors during the 24 h before the MRI scan predicted positive mood. Time spent outdoors was related to greater grey matter volume in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), approx. a 3% increase. The DLPFC is an executive function region. Changes in brain structure can occur quickly. Each participant underwent many scans, enabling the researchers to see day-to-day variations in brain structure.

Ten psychology studies that reveal the best of human nature

Two year olds are surprisingly selfless; we are all altruistic by nature; people who possess Light Triad traits (humanism, treating people as an end itself rather than means to an end; faith in humanity) enjoy a better quality of life; children have a profound sense of right and wrong; we place more value on someone else's suffering than our own; we do "pay it forward;" we watch reality TV because we do empathize with the contestants; we're actually not selfish when we're hungry; "those of us who have suffered the most show the greatest compassion towards others;" the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Bystander Effect have been challenged.

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