Your Genes Could Decide Whether Hypnosis Is Possible (Psychology)

More than a carnival attraction, the act of hypnosis continues to gain respect in the scientific community for its potential benefits, without many real risks. But not everyone can get hypnotized. Whether you’re able to fall into a trance and repeat phrases, perform actions, or change a habit may be up to genetics. In their review of recent hypnosis studies, researchers from the University of London and the State University of New York conclude that it all comes down to what’s known “hypnotic suggestibility.” Some people are very responsive to hypnosis, others are not, and most fall somewhere in between. It’s good to know which camp you fall in, but there’s no use trying to change it.

A 2014 study out of Austria found susceptibility to hypnosis could be the result of a unique combination. First, you’ve got to carry a certain gene variant, the COMT Met allele. But that in itself wasn’t enough: of those who had the gene variant in question, which the researchers say is “linked to the capability or proneness to dissociate from reality,” people who also had a good attention span were more likely to be able to get hypnotized. This discovery goes beyond just hypnosis, however. The researchers wrote that this result suggests “investigating the effects of a gene in the context of relevant psychological traits may further elucidate gene-brain-behavior relationships”—in other words, if we study more genes and the ways they affect personality, we might learn more about impact of genes on our brains and our behavior.

Although most of us are moderately receptive to hypnosis, according to the review in The Conversation, the bulk of research available investigates the only 10 to 15 percent of people who are very susceptible to hypnosis.

Is legitimate hypnosis similar to what you’ve seen on stage or on TV? According to the authors of The Conversation review, the real thing begins with an induction, which is often a direction to focus your mind on one specific thing. The scientists explain, “The purpose of the induction is to induce a mental state in which participants are focused on instructions from the experimenter or therapist, and are not distracted by everyday concerns.”

After the participant’s mind is freed, he or she will be steered toward the stated goal of the session, whether it’s entertainment- or health-focused. And the way instructions are posed matters, too. A hypnosis literature review in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews notes, “suggestions are verbal communications for involuntary responses,” rather than instructions that the participant could choose to ignore. The phrase, “your hand will raise” would elicit a better response under hypnosis than “raise your hand,” in the example cited, because it seems like the only possible response is to comply.

Indeed, some medical conditions may benefit from hypnosis, though again, it likely depends on the susceptibility of each person. A 2017 clinician’s guide to the latest in hypnosis describes some of the conditions most often treated with hypnosis, from depression and anxiety to chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome, to Parkinson’s disease and even addiction.

Head In The Sand? How The Ostrich Effect Thwarts Your Success (Psychology)

Have you ever tried saving money, but then went shopping and avoided checking your savings account? Or maybe your New Year’s resolution was to lose a few pounds, but you never actually weigh yourself to see if you’re making progress. If so, you may be a victim of the ostrich effect: the motivated avoidance of negative information.

Common knowledge tells us that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when they’re scared or threatened. Despite this being a myth (it only looks like they’re hiding their heads underground because that’s where their eggs are kept), it’s where the ostrich effect got its name. Researchers from Hebrew University observed that people tend to deliberately “bury their heads in the sand” to avoid unpleasant information, such as credit card statements, overdue bill notices, and in their study’s case, market fluctuations that affect personal investments. Another study reports that 20 percent of people enrolled in a weight loss program never actually weighed themselves!

While “out of sight, out of mind” can be a tempting philosophy to follow, it’s only a short-term remedy for a problem that will continue to exist no matter how long you ignore it. People succumb to the ostrich effect anyway because of the desire to escape negative feelings or protect their self-esteem. No matter what, you’re only delaying the inevitable. Regularly monitoring your standing in terms of reaching your goals, whether it’s saving money, losing weight, or something else entirely, is the best way to get closer to attaining those goals.

Avoiding negative information can be tempting—after all, who likes bad news? But refusing to face the music can really hamper your goals. So how do you avoid this tendency? One way is to put your monitoring on a schedule: if you’re trying to save money or lose weight, for example, make it a habit to check your accounts or weigh yourself first thing in the morning, every morning. That way, you don’t need to think about how bad it’ll be or expend any mental energy on whether or not to do it—you just do it, and move on with your life. Your goals will be better for it.

Social Isolation Could Breed Conspiracy Theorists (Psychology)

Most of us have a few conspiracy theorists in our lives. With them, popular topics of conversation might include chemtrails, the Illuminati, or the notion that aliens are contacting us. What makes a person start thinking like a conspiracy theorist? According to research from Princeton University, social exclusion may be to blame. Yep—your superstitious friends might just be a little lonely.

For a study published in 2016 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers had volunteers write about a recent unpleasant experience they had with friends and rate how excluded they felt. Then they answered questions relating to their search for purpose in life and their beliefs surrounding various conspiracies, such as “pharmaceutical companies withhold cures for financial reasons” and “events in the Bermuda Triangle constitute evidence of the paranormal.” The more excluded the participants felt, the more they desired meaning in their lives and the more likely they were to believe in the conspiracy theories.

That experiment proved that there was an association between feeling excluded and harboring alternative beliefs, but the researchers’ second experiment put a causal link in the mix. In it, researchers put one group of college students in a position where they felt excluded by their peers and another group in a position where they felt included. Next, they were prompted to read two conspiracy scenarios and a fictional good-luck ritual—all stories that involved an ambiguous situation that included a coordinated effort by several people that may or may not have had an effect on an outcome . The students who were excluded thought there was more of a connection between the characters’ actions and the outcome than those who were included.

But why does this happen? As the study’s co-author, Alin Coman, explains to Princeton University: “Those who are excluded may begin to wonder why they’re excluded in the first place, causing them to seek meaning in their lives. This may then lead them to endorse certain conspiracy beliefs.” That’s dangerous, since conspiratorial thinking itself can alienate people and cause further exclusion, creating a cycle that can be very difficult to escape. Instead, people—both loved ones and lawmakers—should work to make people feel included in society.

The Pygmalion Effect Sneakily Boost Your Performance (Psychology)

It’s your first day of math class, and, unbeknownst to you, your algebra I teacher has been bragging on you — your new algebra II teacher has heard how smart you are, so she provides plenty of positive verbal feedback and nods of encouragement. Then, before you know it, you’re at the top of your class! This is an example of the Pygmalion effect, and it explains self-fulfilling prophecies in a number of scenarios.

Psychologist Robert Rosenthal first captured the Pygmalion effect when studying elementary school children in the 1960s. The kids took a test that was supposed to identify “intellectual bloomers” or “growth spurters.” The teachers were then given the names of these students. As TIME explains, “sure enough, these students showed a significantly greater gain in performance over their classmates when tested again at the end of the year.” But, here’s the thing — the “intellectual bloomers” were randomly assigned. So, what happened here?

As Rosenthal puts it, he found “that what one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” He goes on to say that the only difference between those kids and their peers was “in the mind of the teacher.” The teachers believed in these ‘high-achievers,’ and their actions towards them reflected just that. As TIME explains, Rosenthal and others found four specific ways that “elevated expectations promote greater achievement.”

For starters, teachers and parents (or other authority figures) “create a warmer socioemotional climate” for ‘high-potential’ learners. Meaning, they’re more apt to use positive speech, or to give a warm head nod or an encouraging head nod. They’re also more likely to teach difficult material to those with ‘promising’ academic futures. They’ll also give ample opportunities to contribute and more time to answer questions. And finally, they’re more likely to offer sincere and personalized feedback that goes beyond a simple “Good job.” For the elementary students in Rosenthal’s study, Psychology Today elaborates that the “teachers were able to nonverbally communicate their positive expectations for academic success to these students.”

The Pygmalion effect can take place in others areas of life — not just the classroom. Psychology Today notes that “Tel Aviv University professor, Dov Eden, has demonstrated the Pygmalion effect in all sorts of work groups, across all sectors and industries.” For example, if your manager holds positive performance expectations for you and your colleagues, there’s a greater chance that you’ll live up to your potential. And if you play for Bill Belichick, you’re more likely to think you can win that Super Bowl.

To Follow Your Passion Despite Your Day Job, Do What This Famous Author Did (Psychology)

When it comes to making art while holding down a “real” job, English author Anthony Trollope could check off several hashtags: #winning #goals #bookbeast #multihyphenate. He wrote 47 novels and 16 other books in his lifetime, and most of that was as an employee of the post office. How did he do it? A daily regimen that you, too, can follow — if you have the will.

Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope’s novels are celebrated for being ultra-detailed slices of real life. Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote that they were “just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of.” That makes sense, considering that he was a regular guy steeped in his own daily business — no extravagant parties or holidays in foreign lands for this civil servant.

In 1834, at 19 years old, he was hired as a junior clerk in the General Post Office. He began writing his first book in 1843, and by the time he retired in 1867, more than two dozen of his books had been published. As Trollope wrote in his autobiography, he accomplished this feat with determination, discipline, and a very early alarm.

“It was my practice to be at my table every morning at 5:30 a.m.; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy,” he wrote. “By beginning at that hour I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast. All those I think who have lived as literary men — working daily as literary labourers — will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.” But, Trollope said, not all hours are made equal. It’s easy to set aside time for yourself to write only to sit “gazing at the wall” trying to think of ideas.

To combat this, he set mini-goals: He watched the clock and made a rule that he would write 250 words every 15 minutes. With that responsibility before him, the ideas just happened. “I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went,” he wrote.

That merciless approach got results. “This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year,” he wrote. “I have never written three novels in a year but by following the plan above described I have written more than as much as three volumes; and by adhering to it over a course of years, I have been enabled to have always on hand — for some time back now — one or two or even three unpublished novels in my desk beside me.”

It was that simple. Working just three hours a day, adds up to quite a lot over a lifetime. What’s stopping you? Just set your alarm, lay out your stopwatch, and allow yourself “no mercy.”

Cult Leaders Use This Method To Co-Opt Your Brain (Psychology)

Charles Manson. David Koresh. L. Ron Hubbard. Their names are famous — or rather, infamous — for the control they exerted on their followers. At least one of the men on that list is arguably still exerting a lot of control on the world even after his death. All of these men could be described as cult leaders. But what draws people to cults? And once they’re in, why is it so hard to get out?

There’s one ingredient that pretty much every cult has in common, and that’s a charismatic leader. That’s because the key to building a community around yourself is convincing others that you’ve got what they need, whether that’s spiritual answers, creature comforts, or simply a method to ease their mind. Crucially, people seek a way to soothe their fears and anxieties, and cults have a special advantage when it comes to addressing those needs. They can make promises that no other group can hope to match — as long as the charmer in charge is convincing enough. According to California Institute of Technology psychologist Jon-Patrik Pedersen, those promises might include “complete financial security, constant peace of mind, perfect health, and eternal life.”

One way a recruiter might start is by asking a small favor (Benjamin Franklin effect, anyone?). For former cult member Ian Haworth, that favor was simply to fill out a short survey. From there, the recruiter played on his anxiety that he might have a greater purpose in life, asking, “Isn’t it time you considered giving something back to the community instead of taking from it all the time like most people do?” After that, it was simply a matter of making him feel inferior for things like his cigarette habit, along with promising to be able to help him break it. Soon enough, Ian had pledged his money, time, and labor.

Ian is quick to point out that the success of the recruiting methods that hemmed him in weren’t due to his lack of willpower or a mental illness. He was perfectly capable of making rational decisions and actually considered himself to be rather incredulous and skeptical. “The easiest people to recruit are ones with alert, questioning minds who want to debate issues with other people,” he told Vice. “You take a strong-willed, strong-minded person and put them into a cult environment and the techniques used will break a person down very, very quickly.” Maybe it’s that strong-mindedness that makes it so easy. Someone used to doubting themselves might be more inclined to realize that a person is attempting to manipulate them.

Recruiting is one thing, but how does a cult prevent its members from falling away from the fold? Generally, that comes down to making five demands that “protect” the faithful from forces that might lead them astray. It’s all about minimizing each member’s agency, whether by eroding their sense of self-worth, draining their bank accounts, or blocking out voices that might lead them to question the leader’s vision. The plan works like this, presented in no particular order:

1. Isolation. Often one of the first demands made of a convert is that they cut off ties with friends and family members. If they aren’t in line with the cult’s vision, they represent a danger to it. Besides keeping potentially positive influences out of the recruit’s life, this has the effect of grounding the recruit’s entire social life in the organization.
2. Obedience. Well, this is a pretty obvious one. Is it even a cult if the leader doesn’t demand absolute obedience? By requiring members to follow a set of rules that might be arbitrary, nonsensical, pointless, or petty, the cult leader instills a reflexive obedience that can later be exploited to get the members to perform harmful and even violent deeds.
3. Labor. Besides the obvious benefit of free labor that the cult reaps by requiring endless work of its members, putting people to work is a great way to keep them from questioning their leaders’ goals and thought processes. You can’t shake off an oppressor if you’re always exhausted.
4. Money. By requiring members to raise money for or donate all of their money to the cause, cults don’t just fund their organization: they also prevent members from having the wherewithal to leave. It’s hard to flee if you can’t even afford a cab.
5. Ostracization. The goal of these onerous demands is to leave members feeling as if the only thing worthwhile is the vision of the leader and the sense of community. But if a person does escape, they might find more purpose on the outside. To combat this, a cult will stigmatize those “apostates” even more than the uninitiated and will equate leaving the cult with failure and persecution.

It’s not a coincidence that these demands share many qualities with those made by abusive partners — in both circumstances, an individual is attempting to exert control by manipulating their victim’s sense of self-worth and value. It’s just something that’s worth thinking about. If you think you may be in a cult, here’s a guide on how to leave.

Addicted To The Sun? Research Shows It’s In Your Genes (Biology)

According to a study of more than 260,000 people led by King’s College London researchers, sun-seeking behavior is linked to genes involved in addiction, behavioral and personality traits, and brain function.

This means that people’s behavior towards seeking sun is complicated by a genetic predisposition, and this needs to be taken into account when designing skin cancer awareness campaigns.

The researchers studied detailed health information of 2,500 twins from TwinsUK, including their sun-seeking behavior and genetics. Identical twins in a pair were more likely to have a similar sun-seeking behavior than non-identical twins, indicating that genetics play a key role.

The team then identified five key genes involved in sun-seeking behavior from a further analysis of 260,000 participants from other cohorts. Some of these genes have been linked to behavioral traits associated with risk-taking and addiction, including smoking, cannabis and alcohol consumption and number of sexual partners.

Their results suggested that tackling excessive sun exposure or use of tanning beds might be more challenging than expected, as it is influenced by genetic factors. 

References: Sanna, M et al. Looking for sunshine: genetic predisposition to sun-seeking in 265,000 individuals of European ancestry. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 2020.

Green Light Therapy Shown To Reduce Migraine Frequency And Intensity (Neuroscience)

New research from the University of Arizona Health Sciences found that people who suffer from migraine may benefit from green light therapy, which was shown to reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches and improve patient quality of life.

During the study, patients were exposed to white light for one to two hours a day for 10 weeks. After a two-week break, they were exposed to green light for 10 weeks. They completed regular surveys and questionnaires to track the number of headaches they experienced and the intensity of those headaches, as well as quality of life measurements such as the ability to fall and stay asleep or to perform work.

Using a numeric pain scale of 0 to 10, participants noted that green light exposure resulted in a 60% reduction in pain, from 8 to 3.2. A majority of study participants—86% of episodic migraine patients and 63% of chronic migraine patients—reported a more than 50% reduction in headache days per month. Green light therapy also shortened the duration of headaches, and it improved participants’ ability to fall and stay asleep, perform chores, exercise, and work.

None of the study participants reported any side effects of green light exposure.

Wave Function Collapse Weren’t Due To Gravity (Physics)

A team of researchers from Germany, Italy and Hungary has tested a theory that suggests gravity is the force behind quantum collapse and has found no evidence to support it. In their paper, the researchers describe underground experiments they conducted to test the impact of gravity on wave functions and what their work showed them. Myungshik Kim, with Imperial College London has published a News & Views piece in the same issue, outlining the work by the team and the implications of their results.

The Diósi–Penrose (DP) model of gravity-related wave function collapse. a, According to quantum gravity, a spatial quantum superposition of a system (red sphere) generates a superposition of different spacetime curvatures (grey sheets), corresponding to the possible different locations of the system. Penrose argues that a superposition of different spacetimes is unstable and decays in time, making the system’s wave function also collapse. He provides an estimate for the time of collapse as given in equation (1), which is faster for a larger system, similar to that suggested earlier by Diósi. b, The master equation of the DP model (equation (3)) predicts not only the collapse of the wave function, but also an omnipresent Brownian-like diffusion (represented by the grey arrow) for each constituent of the system. When the constituents are charged (protons and electrons), the diffusion is accompanied by the emission of radiation (wavy orange lines), with a spectrum that depends on the configuration of the system. This is given by equation (4) in the range ΔE = (10–105) keV of photon energies. The predicted radiation emission is faint but potentially detectable by an experiment performed in a very low-noise environment. We performed such an experiment to rule out the original parameter-free version of the DP model. Credit: Nature Physics (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41567-020-1008-4

Quantum physics suggests that the state of an object depends on its properties and the way it is measured by an observer; the thought experiment involving Schrodinger’s cat is perhaps the most famous example. But the theory is not universally accepted—physicists have wrangled for many years over the notion, with some arguing that it seems a bit too anthropocentric to be real. Behind the theory is the concept of waveform collapse, by which the observation of a particle, as an example, makes it collapse. To help make sense of the idea, some physicists have suggested that the force behind waveform collapse is not a person taking a look at a particle, but gravity. They suggest that gravitational fields exist outside of quantum theory and resist being forced into awkward combinations such as superpositions. A gravitational field forced to do so soon collapses, taking the particle with it. In this new effort, the researchers devised an experiment to test this theory in a physical sense.

The experiment consisted of building a small crystal detector made from germanium and using it to detect gamma and X-ray emissions from protons in the nuclei of the germanium. But before running the experiment, they wrapped the detector in lead and dropped it into a facility 1.4 kilometers below ground level at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy to prevent as much extraneous radiation from reaching the sensor as possible. After two months of testing, the team recorded far fewer photon hits than theory would suggest—indicating that the particles were not collapsing due to gravity, as theory had suggested.

References: (1) Kim, M.S. A massive test. Nat. Phys. (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41567-020-1026-2 link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41567-020-1026-2 (2) Donadi, S., Piscicchia, K., Curceanu, C. et al.Underground test of gravity-related wave function collapse. Nat. Phys. (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41567-020-1008-4 link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41567-020-1008-4