February Neuroscience Round-Up for Mindful Leaders

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By The Mindful Leader Team

This month, we look at political polarization from a neurological perspective, examine the benefits of breathing exercises for stress reduction, consider the surprising benefits of forgetting (but also tips for how to remember things!), look at how climate crisis trauma negatively impacts cognitive functioning, and lastly, explore how smells are linked to memory and behavior in mice. We have summarized the main ideas and key takeaways below with links to the full articles.

Study Offers Neurological Explanation for how Brains Bias Partisans Against New Information  

Researchers at Brown University have begun to unlock some of the neural mechanisms behind political polarization — and it has to do with the very ways in which our brain processes information. In a prior study, this research team found that members of the same political party tend to have similar brain activity when watching a video about a potentially polarizing issue, such as abortion or immigration. In this study, the research team conducted a series of follow-up experiments to understand more about the nature of this neural synchrony occurring among party lines. Participants first completed a word reading task in which they were presented with single words (such as abortion, freedom, immigration) and asked to identify them as either political or non-political. Then, they watched a neutrally-worded news clips on abortion and an intense 2016 presidential debate on immigration and policing. During these tasks, fMRI was used to record brain activity, but specifically the distinct pattern of neuronal firing elicited in response to each static word, the “neural fingerprint”. When the researchers analyzed the brain activity of study participants, they found that the neural fingerprint of a liberal (democratic) brain is more similar to that of other liberal brains than to the fingerprint of a conservative (republican) brain, and vice versa. 

Key Points:

  • These findings reveal that even in non-political contexts, our brains are processing information in a polarized manner.
  • Similarly, members of the same political party also separate incoming real-world information into similar meaningful units, but members of the opposite party will represent and connect this same incoming info in a different way. Thus, even after watching the same news clip, a democrat and a republic are likely to interpret and organize the same information in very different formats.

Read the full article here; Find the published study here

Study Shows Cyclic Breathing Technique More Effective in Reducing Stress Than Mindfulness Meditation  

Breathing exercises might be more effective at reducing stress than mindfulness meditation, at least according to a new study from Stanford University. During the height of the pandemic, 114 individuals participated in one of four stress reducing activities for five minutes a day for one month, keeping a journal to record how effective the sessions were and measuring heart rate and respiration rate each day. Participants either engaged in mindfulness meditation or one of three types of breathing exercises: cyclic sighing (longer time spent on exhaling than inhaling), box breathing (equal time spent inhaling and exhaling) or cyclic hyperventilation (longer time spent inhaling than exhaling). Overall, 90% of participants reported positive feelings and less anxiety, regardless of the type of activity. Stress reduction was considered as both an improvement in mood and reduced physiological arousal (heart rate and respiratory rate).

Key Points:

  • Those who engaged in breathing exercises reported a greater increase in mood than those who practiced mindfulness meditation, but all techniques were equally effective in reducing anxiety.
  • Specifically, cyclic sighing elicited the greatest reduction in stress (improved mood and reduced respiratory rate), compared to the other two breathing exercises and mindfulness meditation.
  • Five minutes a day of breathing exercises or mindfulness meditation can help improve mood and reduce anxiety and stress, but cyclic sighing may be the most effective.

Read the full article here; Find the published study here

Memory and the Benefits of Forgetting  

In this excerpt from Andrew E. Budson and Elizabeth A. Kensinger’s new book on memory, they remind us that forgetting is actually beneficial to our memory system. Although we might think of our memory as allowing us to return to and revisit moments in our past, the true value in our memory is in its ability to allow us to better handle the present and prepare for the future. In fact, individuals with amnesia can’t imagine what might happen in the future any more than they can remember the past. Importantly, we don’t need to remember all the details of past events in order for them to be useful in the future. Consider planning your next trip to the airport: the loss of specific details (such as exactly how many people were in the airport security line on every trip, the exact number of gates at each airport, etc.), helps you instead focus on the interconnections between prior experiences and build a “generic airport” in your memory, which can help you determine when you need to leave and how to navigate to the gate most efficiently on your next trip. Of course, there are times we don’t want to forget important information, but luckily, the four principles of learning can help you remember things.

Key Points:

  • In order for our memory system to be most efficient and helpful in guiding our behavior in the present and future, we actually need to forget a large amount of specific, unnecessary details.
  • The four principles of learning can help you retain information you don’t want to forget:
    • Focus attention on what you’re hoping to remember.
    • Organize the material to make it easier to remember.
    • Understand the content you’re trying to remember thoroughly.
    • Relate the information to things you already know or make otherwise meaningful connections.

Read the book excerpt here; Find the full book here

Climate Change Trauma has Real Impacts on Cognition and the Brain, Wildfire Survivors Study Shows    

In this study, Dr. Jyoti Mishra and her research team at University of California, San Diego wanted to see if the symptoms of climate change-related trauma, i.e., increased anxiety and depression, also translate to lasting changes in cognitive functioning. The researchers evaluated cognitive functioning among three groups: people directly exposed to the 2018 wildfire in Paradise, California, people indirectly exposed to the wildfire (meaning they witnessed the fire harm their community but did not experience personal loss), and a control group who had no exposure to the wildfire. 

Key Points:

  • Exposure to the wildfire, whether direct or indirect, caused people to deal with distractions less accurately. In other words, their cognitive functioning was negatively impacted.
  • Brain imaging revealed greater frontal lobe activity in those exposed to the wildfire when dealing with distractions. This suggests that they were exerting more cognitive effort in response to greater difficulty trying to process the distractions.
  • With climate disasters occurring more and more frequently, it’s important to build and strengthen resilient mental health through healthy habits, like practicing mindfulness, exercising regularly, and developing strong social bonds.

Read the full article here; Find the published study here

Neurons That “Learn” to Smell a Threat    

Smell helps animals, including humans, assess new environments and help determine if they are safe or dangerous. A new study out of Rochester University has identified a specific set of neurons in the mouse olfactory system that “learns” if a scent of another male is a threat. Mice exhibit territorial aggression, and this behavior increases when they encounter the same male mouse again and again. These researchers identified a specific set of inhibitory neurons responsible for this. When the mice repeatedly encountered the same male, these neurons, located in the region responsible for interpreting “social smells” (the accessory olfactory system), became highly active and actually changed their function. However, when researchers disrupted these neurons, which are associated with neuroplasticity and learning, the territorial aggression significantly decreased, almost disappearing entirely. 

Key Points:

  • The mice olfactory system “learns” to remember and recognize social smells, which then guides aggressive territorial behavior. A specific sensory inhibitory neuron population in the accessory olfactory system  is largely responsible for regulating this behavioral response to social smells.
  • Disruptions to the cellular functioning in the pheromone-sensing circuitry of the mouse brain is directly linked to behavioral changes in response to social threats.

Read the full article here; Find the published study here.


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