Tag Archives: #attention

How We Know Whether and When to Pay Attention (Neuroscience)

Fast reactions to future events are crucial. A boxer, for example, needs to respond to her opponent in fractions of a second in order to anticipate and block the next attack. Such rapid responses are based on estimates of whether and when events will occur. Now, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (MPIEA) and New York University (NYU) have identified the cognitive computations underlying this complex predictive behavior.

How does the brain know when to pay attention? Every future event carries two distinct kinds of uncertainty: Whether it will happen within a given time span, and if so, when it will likely occur. Until now, most research on temporal prediction has assumed that the probability of whether an event will occur has a stable effect on anticipation over time. However, this assumption has not been empirically proven. Furthermore, it is unknown how the human brain combines the probabilities of whether and when a future event will occur.

An international team of researchers from MPIEA and NYU has now investigated how these two different sources of uncertainty affect human anticipatory behavior. Using a simple but elegant experiment, they systematically manipulated the probabilities of whether and when sensory events will occur and analyzed human reaction time behavior. In their recent article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the team reports two novel results. First, the probability of whether an event will occur has a highly dynamic effect on anticipation over time. Second, the brain’s estimations of whetherand when an event will occur take place independently.

“Our experiment taps into the basic ways we use probability in everyday life, for example when driving our car,” explains Matthias Grabenhorst of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics. “When approaching a railroad crossing, the probability of the gates closing determines our overall readiness to hit the brakes. This is intuitive and known.” Georgios Michalareas, also MPIEA, adds: “We found, however, that this readiness to respond drastically increases over time. You become much more alert, although the probability of the gates closing objectively does not change.”

This dynamic effect of whether an event will occur is independent of when it will happen. The brain knows when to pay attention based on independent computations of these two probabilities. The research team’s findings indicate that the human brain dynamically adjusts its readiness to respond based on separate probability estimates of whetherand whenevents occur. The results of this study add significantly to our understanding of how the human brain predicts future events in order to interact accordingly with the environment.

Featured image: Fast reactions are based on estimates of whether and when events will occur. (Image: Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics)

Original Publication:
Matthias Grabenhorst, Laurence T. Maloney, David Poeppel and Georgios Michalareas (2021): Two sources of uncertainty independently modulate temporal expectancy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118(16), e2019342118.

Provided by Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics

Attention And Working Memory: Two Sides of the Same Neural Coin? (Neuroscience)

Princeton neuroscientists have demonstrated that attention and working memory are two sides of the same neural coin; what’s more, they have observed the coin as it flips inside the brain

In 1890, psychologist William James described attention as the spotlight we shine not only on the world around us, but also on the contents of our minds. Most cognitive scientists since then have drawn a sharp distinction between what James termed “sensorial attention” and “intellectual attention,” now usually called “attention” and “working memory,” but James saw them as two varieties of the same mental process.

New research by Princeton neuroscientists suggests that James was on to something, finding that attention to the outside world and attention to our own thoughts are actually two sides of the same neural coin. What’s more, they have observed the coin as it flips inside the brain.

A paper published in Nature on March 31 by Matthew Panichello, a postdoctoral research associate at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, and Timothy Buschman, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton, found that attention and working memory share the same neural mechanisms. Importantly, their work also reveals how neural representations of memories are transformed as they direct behavior.

“When we act on sensory inputs we call it ‘attention,'” said Buschman. “But there’s a similar mechanism that can act on the thoughts we hold in mind.”

In a pair of experiments with two rhesus macaque monkeys, the researchers found that neurons in the prefrontal cortices that focus attention on sensory stimuli are the very same ones that focus on an item in working memory. What’s more, Panichello and Buschman actually observed the neural representations of those memories realigning in the brain as the monkeys selected which memories to act upon.

In one experiment, each monkey was seated before a computer monitor and a camera that tracked their eye movements. The monitor displayed pairs of randomly selected colored squares, one above the other. Then the squares vanished, requiring the monkey to remember the color and location of the squares. After a brief pause, a symbol appeared, telling the monkey which square they should select from their working memory. Then, after another pause, they reported the color of the selected square by matching it to a color wheel.

To perform the task, each monkey needed to hold both colors in their working memory, select the target color from memory, and then report that color on the color wheel. After each response, the monkey was rewarded with droplets of juice. The closer their report was to the target color, the more droplets they earned.

Working memory and attention: Two sides of the same neural coin? Experiments Credit: Courtesy of Timothy Buschman and Matthew Panichello Caption: Princeton neuroscientists Timothy Buschman and Matthew Panichello have discovered that attention and working memory are much more closely connected than most modern cognitive scientists realized. They performed two experiments in which monkeys were shown two color blocks and a symbol that directed them to select the top one (a circle or an upward slanted line) or the bottom one (a triangle or a downward slanted line). They then matched the selected color to its spot on the color wheel. This image shows data from the first experiment: The spectrum of possible colors for the two blocks (upper and lower) are represented as a ring in the activity of neurons in the prefrontal cortex. When the animal is remembering both items (before selecting the target), these rings lie on separate “planes” within the brain. These planes are perpendicular to one another to keep the items separate. When one of the items is selected, the color rings rotate in order to align the colors for either item. This allows the brain to “read out” the color of the selected item, regardless of whether it was originally the upper or lower item. Courtesy of the Buschman Lab

In a second experiment, to compare the selection of items from working memory to a more classic attention task, the researchers indicated the direction to the monkeys before they saw the colored squares. This allowed the macaques to focus all their attention on the indicated square (and ignore the other one). As expected, the monkeys performed better on this task because they knew in advance which square to attend to and which to ignore.

The researchers recorded neural activity in the prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex and visual cortex. The prefrontal cortex is associated with a variety of executive function processes including attention, working memory, planning and inhibition. In this study, the researchers discovered that the same neurons in the prefrontal cortex that directed attention were also used to select an item from the monkey’s working memory.

This wasn’t true everywhere in the brain. In an area in the visual cortex associated with color recognition and in an area in the parietal lobe associated with visual and spatial analysis, the processes of attending to sensory input and selecting the target color from working memory involved distinct neural mechanisms.

“Attention allows you to focus your resources on a particular stimulus, while a similar selection process happens with items in working memory,” said Buschman. “Our results show the prefrontal cortex uses one representation to control both attention and working memory.”

The same neural recordings also showed how selecting an item changes memories so that they are either hidden away in working memory or used to make a response. This involves dynamically rotating the memory representation in the prefrontal cortex.

This can be likened to holding a piece of paper with text on it. If you hold the paper edge-on to your face, you can’t read it. This concealment, Buschman explained, prevents the brain from triggering the wrong response, or triggering a response too early.

“The brain is holding information in a way that the network can’t see it,” he said. Then, when it came time to respond at the end of the trial, the memory representation rotated. Just as rotating the paper allows you to read and act upon the text, rotating the neural representation allows the brain to direct behavior.

“This dynamic transformation just blew me away,” said Buschman. “It shows how the brain can manipulate items in working memory to guide your action.”

“It is an important paper,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist Earl Miller, who was not involved in this research. “Attention and working memory have often been discussed as being two sides of the same coin, but that has mainly been lip service. This paper shows how true this is and also shows us the ‘coin’ — the coding and control mechanisms that they share.”

“Our goal is not to overwrite the word ‘attention,'” said Buschman. Instead, he hopes that findings from decades of research on attention can be generalized to shed light on other forms of executive function. “Attention has been well-studied as the cognitive control of sensory inputs. Our results begin to broaden these concepts to other behaviors.”

“Shared mechanisms underlie the control of working memory and attention,” by Matthew F. Panichello and Timothy J. Buschman, appears in the March 31 issue of the journal Nature (DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03390-w). This research was supported by by the National Institute for Mental Health (R01MH115042 to TJB) and the Department of Defense (a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship to MFP).

Featured image: Princeton neuroscientists Timothy Buschman and Matthew Panichello have discovered that attention and working memory are much more closely connected than most modern cognitive scientists realized. They performed two experiments in which monkeys were shown two color blocks and a symbol that directed them to look at the top one (a circle or an upward slanted line) or the bottom one (a triangle or a downward slanted line). They then matched the selected color to its spot on the color wheel. In the first experiment (left), they saw the blocks first and then the directional signal. In the second (right), they saw the directional signal first and then the color blocks. Courtesy of Timothy Buschman and Matthew Panichello

Reference: Panichello, M.F., Buschman, T.J. Shared mechanisms underlie the control of working memory and attention. Nature (2021). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03390-w https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03390-w

Provided by Princeton University

Researchers Discover How The Brain Learns From Subconscious Stimuli (Neuroscience)

Researchers uncovered for the first time what happens in animals’ brains when they learn from subconscious, visual stimuli. In time, this knowledge can lead to new treatments for a number of conditions. The study, a collaboration between KU Leuven, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard was published in Neuron.

An experienced birdwatcher recognises many more details in a bird’s plumage than the ordinary person. Thanks to extensive training, he or she can identify specific features in the plumage. This learning process is not only dependent on conscious processes. Previous research has shown that when people are rewarded during the presentation of visual stimuli that are not consciously perceivable, they can still perceive these stimuli afterwards.

Although this is a known phenomenon, researchers were unsure as to how exactly this unconscious perceptual learning comes about. To find out, Professor Wim Vanduffel and colleagues studied the brains of two rhesus monkeys before and after they were exposed to subconscious visual stimuli.


The researchers activated part of the reward system at the base of the brain stem, the ventral tegmental area. This includes cells that produce dopamine, a molecule that is also released when you receive a reward. “Dopamine is a crucial messenger molecule of our motor and reward systems, and is extremely important for learning and enjoyment,” says Vanduffel. Activating the ventral tegmental area released dopamine, among other things. “By stimulating the brain area directly, we can causally link the activity in that area to perception or complex cognitive behaviour,” explains Vanduffel.

While the brain area was activated, the monkeys were shown virtually invisible images of human faces and bodies. Because the images were very blurry and the monkeys had to perform a very different and difficult task at the same time, they could not consciously perceive these images. The same process was followed during the control tests, but the brain was not stimulated.

When the monkeys received subconscious visual stimuli while the ventral tegmental area was stimulated, they knew details about those images afterwards. For example, they knew whether the bodies shown were turned to the left or to the right. This was not the case when there had been no brain stimulation.

“Thanks to this experiment, we can demonstrate for the first time a direct causal relationship between this brain region and, as a result, also the likely link between dopamine and the subconscious learning of complex visual stimuli.”

The parts in the darker colour regulate, among others, the production of dopamine. Disturbances in this region can lead to Parkinson’s disease and other conditions. | © Shutterstock

The researchers also made a brain scan of the animals before and after the test. “We can see the blood flow in the brain, which gives an indication of which neurons are active. The more blood flow, the more activity,” explains Vanduffel. The scans showed that the task caused activity in the visual cortex of the brain and in areas important for memory. “With this data, we can zoom in to find out what is happening exactly at a neuronal level in these brain areas, in future experiments.”

“Since Freud’s insights in the 20th century, the scientific community has been wondering how subconscious sensations can affect us. Thanks to the present awareness that there is a strong resemblance between humans and monkeys, and new and advanced technologies, we can finally map such processes physiologically.”

Parkinson’s disease

Disturbances in the dopaminergic system can lead to numerous psychiatric and motor disorders, such as depression, addiction and Parkinson’s disease. A better understanding of how this system works, in various forms of learning, is therefore crucial to developing targeted therapies for these conditions.

You have to know how a car’s engine works before you can fix a problem with it.

“Parkinson’s is a motor disorder and is caused by dopamine-producing neurons dying off. However, current dopamine treatments may produce side effects because they also trigger the entire reward system, which not only reduces motor symptoms but can also lead to addictive behaviour.” Fundamental research into the functioning of these brain areas will eventually lead to more targeted treatments with fewer side effects.


This insight is also useful in situations such as trauma, ageing or oncological problems where an increase in brain plasticity, i.e. the ability to change, could be very useful. “By stimulating areas of the brain that produce dopamine, we could, for example, enable people to regain their speech more quickly or improve their motor skills after an accident or illness. This could even be done through medication, although we are still a long way from that,” explains Vanduffel.

Insights about our brain and the conditions under which we and other primates visually shape our world are therefore crucial, because, as Vanduffel concludes: “you have to know how a car’s engine works before you can fix a problem with it.”

Featured image: The ventral tegmental area contains, among others, cells that produce dopamine. © Ku Leuven

More information

The study “Electrical stimulation of the macaque ventral tegmental area drives category-selective learning without attention” by Sjoerd R. Murris, John T. Arsenault, Rajani Raman, Rufin Vogels, and Wim Vanduffel was published in Neuron.

Provided by KU Leuven

Body Positivity: What Goes Around Comes Around? (Psychology)

Promoting body positivity can make you feel more body-positive yourself.

A wealth of research has investigated negative body image—negative thoughts and feelings about one’s own body—and has answered important questions, such as how negative body image is caused and what we can do about it. In recent years, however, researchers have begun to pay more attention to positive body image. That is, love, acceptance, and respect for one’s own body—regardless of what it looks like. Research on positive body image is important: If we only focus on reducing negative body image, that does not necessarily mean that people will be happy about their body and treat it well.

The emerging research on positive body image is teaching us many important and interesting things. One of the most fascinating characteristics about people with a positive body image is that they tend to promote positive body image to other people. For example, by being a role model to others about the importance of accepting one’s own body, and criticizing unrealistic beauty standards. At the same time, people with a positive body image surround themselves with other people who are body-positive, too, and who love and accept their body. This phenomenon—being body positive and promoting body positivity to others, and also having peers who are/do the same—has been termed reciprocity.

In a recent experiment Jessica Alleva & colleagues at Maastricht University, look more closely at one piece of the puzzle of reciprocity. Namely, they investigated whether the act of promoting positive body image to a close friend would lead people to feeling more body-positive themselves.

The experiment included 154 young women. At the laboratory, they completed questionnaires about their body image and about friendship and well-being (to disguise the true purpose of the study). Afterwards, they were randomly assigned to one of two groups.

In the body-positive group, participants were instructed to write a letter to a close friend, expressing appreciation for their friend’s body functionality. Body functionality refers to everything the body can do, such as eat and digest food; listen to music and see the sunrise; dance and paint; stretch and bend; and give hugs and cuddle. For example, a participant may have written, “I love your body because it gives me the most amazing hugs.”

Alleva and colleagues chose this particular activity because focusing on one’s body functionality, and why it is personally meaningful, is one of the most effective ways to improve positive body image. Though this technique had never been applied to writing about someone else’s body, they expected it to have similarly positive effects, by shifting participants’ focus away from how the body looks and towards all of the valuable things it can do, which may otherwise be taken for granted.

In the comparison group, participants were instructed to write a letter to a close friend, expressing appreciation for their favourite shared memories. In this way, participants in both groups wrote a letter to a close friend and expressed appreciation to their friend, but only the focus of the letter was different (body functionality vs. favourite memories). Participants in both groups were told to spend 15-30 minutes writing their letter.

After writing, all participants completed the same set of questionnaires again.

The key results are that participants in both groups experienced sizeable improvements in how they felt about their own body from before to after writing their letter. Namely, all participants felt more grateful for the functionality of their body in particular, and experienced more love, acceptance, and appreciation for their body overall.

The Take-Home Message

Women who promoted body positivity to a friend ended up feeling more positively about their own body, too. However, women in the comparison group, who wrote about favourite memories with their friend, also felt more positively about their own body. Why might this be?

It could be that the present findings are merely the result of demand characteristics: That is, the participants completed the questionnaires based on what they thought the experimenters expected of them (i.e., to feel better about their body). However, Alleva and colleagues made efforts to disguise the true purpose of the study, such as including questionnaires about friendship and well-being to align with our “cover story.”

Another possibility is that participants in both conditions did in fact experience real improvements to their body image. Based on prior research, writing about a friend’s body functionality should encourage women to reflect on their own body functionality, too, thereby shifting their focus away from physical appearance. It could be that writing about shared memories with a friend also involved reflections on body functionality, for example, if participants described doing physical activities together (e.g., dancing).

It is also possible that participants in both conditions experienced an increase in positive mood and gratitude after having written a kind letter to their friend, and these changes may have driven the improvements in positive body image.

In future research, Alleva and colleagues aim to shed more light on these underlying processes. They are also planning to incorporate the friend into the laboratory experiment as well: Will the effects of the letter-writing be strengthened if participants read their letter to their friend? And, how will the friend feel about their own body after receiving the letter? In this way, they hope to learn even more about the fascinating phenomenon of reciprocity.

References: (1) Alleva, J. M., Medoch, M. M., Priestley, K., Philippi, J. L., Hamaekers, J., Salvino, E. N., Humblet, S., & Custers, M. (2021). “I appreciate your body, because…” Does promoting positive body image to a friend affect one’s own positive body image? Body Image, 36, 134-138. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2020.11.002 (2) Alleva, J. M., Martijn, C., Van Breukelen, G. J. P., Jansen, A., & Karos, K. (2015). Expand Your Horizon: A programme that improves body image and reduces self-objectification by training women to focus on body functionality. Body Image, 15, 81–89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2015.07.001 (3) Dunaev, J., Markey, C. H., & Brochu, P. M. (2018). An attitude of gratitude: The effects of body-focused gratitude on weight bias internalization and body image. Body Image, 25, 9–13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2018.01.006 (4) Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T.-A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173–206. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.x (5) Guest, E., Costa, B., Williamson, H., Meyrick, J., Halliwell, E., & Harcourt, D. (2019). The effectiveness of interventions aiming to promote positive body image in adults: A systematic review. Body Image, 30, 10‐25. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2019.04.002 (6) Mulgrew, K. E., Stalley, N. L., & Tiggemann, M. (2017). Positive appearance and functionality reflections can improve body satisfaction but do not protect against idealised media exposure. Body Image, 23, 126–134. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2017.09.002 (7) Tylka, T. L., & Wood-Barcalow, N. L. (2015b). What is and what is not positive body image? Conceptual foundations and construct definition. Body Image, 14, 118–129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2015.04.001 (8) Wood-Barcalow, N. L., Tylka, T. L., & Augustus-Horvath, C. L. (2010). “But I like my body”: Positive body image characteristics and a holistic model for young-adult women. Body Image, 7, 106–116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2010.01.001

This article is originally written by Jessica Alleva, who is an assistant professor of psychology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Appearance Research in the U.K. This article is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses

Why Does an Apology Have to Take So Long? (Psychology)

Saying “I’m sorry” is only one part of repairing your relationship.

A thorough apology can take a while. Your actual statement of regret and responsibility might be really short, but it turns out that that’s only one step of the four that a good apology requires.

How frustrating! Here you’ve already tried to make things right and it isn’t finished yet! 

© Freepik

It’s because making amends to another person can be so important and meaningful, that it’s worth taking time to do it well. Many hurts, especially old ones or major ones, require more than one brief talk to express and understand, much less to heal. How long it takes isn’t universal or predictable, which can be hard on the apologizer. But you must have the whole conversation. Time, attention, and patience can not only restore a relationship, but potentially also make it stronger. Adrienne Maree Brown, a social justice activist who writes about how to make conflict transformational rather than destructive, recommends taking more time to address hurt or conflict than our reactive customs usually allow. “Real time is slower than social media time, where everything feels urgent. Real time often includes periods of silence, reflection, growth, space, self-forgiveness, processing with loved ones, rest, and responsibility.”

There are four reasons why making an apology can take longer than you might think. (Yes – another four-part model!)

1. You’re not ready right away. Often you don’t know how the other person was affected by your actions because humans are just plain bad at noticing such things. It’s a natural blindspot. And if the other person is helpful enough to let you know you’ve hurt them, you’re pretty likely to feel defensive about it.

There are also a number of cultural myths that could interfere with your readiness to face the impact you’ve had on someone else: You might feel that the feedback can’t be correct because you’re a nice person, i.e., not the kind who hurts people. Or you might think you couldn’t have hurt someone because you didn’t mean to hurt them. Or you might view your actions as justified or not your fault. You might even believe that apologies are unnecessary, unseemly, and/or a sign of weakness.   

Even if you are ready, sometimes the other person isn’t ready or isn’t receptive to your apology. Initially, they may be too raw or angry to talk with you about it or not yet fully aware of how they feel. In that case, you may have to try more than once. You are making an invitation for a conversation, not a demand for anything, especially forgiveness. If the other person is permanently not interested in talking with you about what happened between you, then you are out of luck – but at least it’s over. 

2. Listening takes time. It’s hard to be receptive, to listen without defending yourself or trying to solve the problem. It’s especially hard to solicit and listen patiently to information that’s unpleasant and may place you in an unflattering light.

After major injuries, such as betrayals or unfaithfulness, hearing the whole experience of the hurt person can take a relatively long time. Oftentimes, before the repair is complete, some parts of the story must be heard more than once. Emotions have their own idiosyncratic arcs. In his poem “Crying,” Galway Kinnell advises the reader to cry and cry until all the tears are cried. He writes, “Happiness [hides] in the last tear.” Relief won’t come until the hurt person is ready to move on.

Although the needs of the hurt person take precedence, an extended apology can also tax your patience and self-esteem. If repairing the relationship in question is deeply important to you, you may need to build up your resilience for a longer haul than you anticipated. Self-compassion can be crucially helpful in order to sustain such courage and openness. 

The question “What is enough?” arises in many extended apology efforts. The process can wear you down. Partners ask, “Shouldn’t she be past it by now?” Or “Will I ever be out of the doghouse?” Understandably, one person or the other may feel tempted to cut their losses. But in my experience, couples can get through almost anything if they stay the course with patience, perseverance, and compassion. 

3. You have to provide fitting restitution. After you’ve listened to the other person’s experience and taken responsibility for your impact on them, you have to find a way to make the wrong right – which can be complicated. In a legal context, your obligation is to make the injured party “whole,” which usually means returned to previous financial status. In a relationship, restitution usually isn’t material or not wholly so. Sometimes a symbolic replacement of an object that’s been lost or damaged is called for. Most often, though, a “do-over” is a chance to have the experience that you earlier prevented.

It’s not the obligation of the hurt person to come up with a reparative solution, but they may want a choice. Consulting them or collaborating with them can produce a result that will work to heal the hurt or make a wrong right.

4. It takes time to make lasting change. Much as individual habit change is hard, altering your habits of communication, relationship routines, and patterns of interaction is also thorny. In my experience, good intentions are rarely sufficient. Sometimes, couples do this work together in therapy, carefully challenging old ways of being together. It takes time even to bring patterns into shared awareness, much less to establish new possibilities for your relationship. If you’ve made a significant mistake, you often have to do some soul-searching of your own, which – I’m sure this isn’t surprising at this point – takes time.

References: (1) Brown, A.M. (2015). “What Is/Isn’t Transformational Justice?” Adrienne Maree Brown blog, http://adriennemareebrown.net/2015/07/09/what-isisnt-transformative-justice/ . (2) Kinnell, G. (1980). “Crying,” Mortal Acts and Mortal Words. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

This article is originally written by Molly Howes, who is a clinical psychologist with more than three decades of experience and author of the book A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right and is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses.

Is It Right to Love Unconditionally? (Philosophy)

Susi Ferrarello, who is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, San Francisco answered what is unconditional love? Does it make us lazy human beings? And many other questions

For those who already know

You were born and that is enough, in theory, to know what unconditional love means. When at loss for words to describe unconditional love, people often point to parental love as the easiest example to explain what unconditional love actually means.

You were born and your parents loved you despite all your flaws and strengths.

Good for you! 

What about all those who struggled with the love received from their parents? Those whose parents were emotionally immature or those who were never enough for their parents; those who grew up with aloof parents or those who felt suffocated by their parental love? The rest of my reflections are for them: 

For those who have no clue

How often have you desired to be loved for who you are? How many times have you caught yourself chasing a relationship because you just wanted to be loved? Have you ever thought that unconditional love should imply sacrifice? 

Unconditional love is often the goal of an entire life and very rarely do we stop reflecting on what it is and how it can be achieved. Our instincts might drive us to fulfill our thirst for love in a chaotic way while our mind might lead us in directions that do not necessarily make our heart happy. Where is the right balance?  How can we experience unconditional love for ourselves or others?

Christian religion, for sure, dedicated refined discussions on what agape—charitable love—is and how we can achieve it. There’s an animated debate about whether we can take agape as a synonym for unconditional love. In fact, what is called agape refers to that brotherly love that keeps the community together no matter our individual flaws. Also, unconditional seems to be the love that God holds for us regardless of what we feel for God or the damages that we might  bring to God (For, God loved all humans unconditionally by sending his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for our sins—John 3:16).

Yet, again, what if we are not Christians? What if we want to understand unconditional love in less Biblical terms? How can we be capable of this form of love? More importantly, should we be striving for this form of love? Or is it somewhat unethical being so forgiving toward ourselves and others.

Love, Ethics, and Humanistic Psychology

In the mid twentieth century, a group of psychologists rose up against the limitation of Freud’s and Skinner’s interpretations of human nature in search for a more holistic approach to human beings. Their positions were strongly influenced by existential and phenomenological philosophy—which means that they were trying to make sense of human existence as it unfolds in their life-world.

It seems that it was with the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, and then with the humanistic approach of Rogers and Myers that the term ‘unconditional love’ was first introduced under the expression of ‘unconditional positive regard’. This showed the healing power of love that developed the full potential of the human being. This term brought the sparkle of divinity to humans as it showed the importance of the unconditional acceptance of who we are in our healing.

Yet, one problem that always emerges in my practice when I talk about unconditional love has to do with the ethical boundaries. What are the ethical boundaries of unconditional love? Should we accept our children if they intentionally produce harm to ourselves and others? Should we keep loving an abusive partner?

Let’s Start with Parental Relationships

Let’s assume that parents should be an example of unconditional love for their children. Yet, how often have we encountered parents who cannot accept a son because he is gay, or a daughter because she is in love with the wrong man? In his 2012 book, Andrew Solomon reads for us a few lines from a bioethicists, Joseph Fletcher, who, in 1968, mentions a parental dilemma in relation to children with down syndrome:

“There is no reason to feel guilty about putting a Down’s syndrome baby away, whether it’s “put away” in the sense of hidden in a sanatorium or in a more responsible lethal sense. It is sad, yes. Dreadful. But it carries no guilt. True guilt arises only from an offense against a person, and a Down’s is not a person” ( Fletcher, Bard, 1968, 59-64)

This is an ethicist who clearly underestimates the power of unconditional love. In fact, now that we have higher acceptance of babies born with down syndrome, their life expectancy increased together with the quality of their life. Yet, before this, plenty of others were hidden in sanatoria or never allowed to live. 

I believe that unconditional love can be described as a force capable of bringing to existence the essence of a human being in any form it presents.

In this case, the children were the victims of blind parents. But what happens when the children are causing suffering to others? What if your children are also guilty of despicable crimes?

Let’s take Susan Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, the shooter at Columbine. When interviewed, she was asked what she would have said to Dylan if he were still alive. She would have asked for forgiveness—she said. She was feeling sorry for not having understood the sense of confusion that Dylan was feeling inside, for not having been able to see him.

Clearly, Dylan did something wrong and clearly those parents had to acknowledge the tragedy that this caused. Yet, in reviewing this recent tragedy, Susan realized that more than avoiding all the choices that led up to that catastrophic event—going to college, marrying her husband, having that child—what she would change is paying more attention to the human being she was raising to know who he was and accepting or at least seeing his essence.

This acceptance does not erase the ethical wrong he personally did; it just gives existential justice to his soul. This person is no longer the whole cluster of projection of his parents’ dreams and regrets but he is his own existence. 

Same problems arise in abusive relationships

Is unconditional love the ultimate goal of our lives? If we say yes, aren’t we condemned to endure abusive relationships with our romantic halves, unfair parents, or siblings? To what extent does the pursuit of unconditional love nail us to a self-sacrificing life?

I would say to no extent. Unconditional love implies the ability to see, bring to awareness the essence of the person we are living with, whether that is just ourselves or our romantic partner. 

How often do we see what we want to see in the person we have in front of us or in ourselves? In one of my previous blog posts, I was playing with the Lacan notion that “love is giving what you do not have to someone who does not want it.” I believe that there is some painful truth in this.

Unconditional love does not mean that we are condemned to accept the rightness of an abusive partner, it means that we can see his unfair violence, but we stop making excuses for them in the pointless effort to justify our life in relation to them. 

Unconditional love means to be compassionate toward our child, partner, or ourself especially after the realization that not all the expectations are met; it means to have eyes to see what kind of life is unfolding in front of (and within) us and to have a heart big enough to accept the social implications of that life—whether that involves having a son who is a mass murderer or a daughter who wants to devote her life to justice. Human capacity to love unconditionally is a means to living a meaningful life. 

To conclude with a quote from Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning: “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the essence of another human being unless he loves him”.

References: (1) Frankl, V. (1946). Man’s Search For Meaning, Beacon Press. (2) Fletcher, J. & Bard, B. (1968). “The Right to Die”, Atlantic Monthly, 221, 59-64. (3) Solomon, A. (2012). Far from the Tree, Simon & Shuster.

This article is originally written by Susi Ferrarello, who is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, San Francisco, and a philosophical counselor and is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses.

Drinking Blocks a Chemical that Promotes Attention (Neuroscience)

Norepinephrine release to cells is diminished, causing cascade of effects.

In a new paper, researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) report brain chemistry that may contribute to why drinkers have difficulty paying attention while under the influence.

Martin Paukert, M.D., of the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, is studying astroglia cells and how they interact with neurons in the brain. ©UT Health San Antonio

The work is funded by generous support from the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation and by grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute of Mental Health. Findings were published Dec. 2 in Nature Communications.

“When we want to focus on something, or when we stand up from a chair and become active, a brain stem nucleus releases a chemical called norepinephrine. Acute exposure to alcohol inhibits this signal in the brain,” said senior author Martin Paukert, MD, assistant professor of cellular and integrative physiology at UT Health San Antonio. When attention is needed for a task, norepinephrine is secreted by a brain structure called the locus coeruleus. Scientists previously did not understand well what happens next, but Dr. Paukert and the team showed that the norepinephrine attaches to receptors on cells called Bergmann glia. This leads to a calcium rise in these cells.

Bergmann glia are astrocytes (caretaker or supporting cells) in the cerebellum, a region near the brain stem. “To our knowledge, this paper is the first description that norepinephrine in mammals directly binds to receptors on the Bergmann glia and activates them through calcium elevation,” Dr. Paukert said.

The researchers focused on the Bergmann glia but also demonstrated that the same phenomenon occurs in cortical astrocytes. “Most likely vigilance-dependent astrocyte calcium activation is inhibited throughout the brain by acute alcohol intoxication,” Dr. Paukert said.

Persons under the influence are off-balance when they walk. The researchers expected to find that the inhibition of calcium rise in Bergmann glia would also explain this. It didn’t. “The calcium elevation in Bergmann glia is not critical for motor coordination, which is somewhat surprising because the cerebellum is classically known for its role in motor control,” Dr. Paukert said. “However, our findings are in line with current suggestions that the cerebellum also plays critical roles in non-motor functions, and that astrocytes are not only supporting basic brain maintenance, but they may actively participate in cognitive function.”

The coauthors included Manzoor Bhat, PhD, professor and chairman of cellular and integrative physiology at UT Health San Antonio. “The beauty of the studies reported by Paukert and coauthors is that they have been conducted in real time in living and breathing animals using state-of-the-art technologies,” Dr. Bhat said. “The findings will open up new avenues of defining the brain circuits that ultimately determine the state of alertness, and how chemicals that interfere with those circuits essentially dampen this inherent vigilance system of the brain.”

The team utilized a technique called two-photon imaging to study specialized mice obtained from collaborators at Johns Hopkins University and Heidelberg University.

References: Liang Ye, Murat Orynbayev, Xiangyu Zhu, Eunice Y. Lim, Ram R. Dereddi, Amit Agarwal, Dwight E. Bergles, Manzoor A. Bhat and Martin Paukert, “Ethanol abolishes vigilance-dependent astroglia network activation in mice by inhibiting norepinephrine release”, Dec. 2, 2020, Nature Communications https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19475-5

Provided by University of Texas Health Science Center at Saint Antonio


The Long School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is named for Texas philanthropists Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long. The school is the largest educator of physicians in South Texas, many of whom remain in San Antonio and the region to practice medicine. The school teaches more than 900 students and trains 800 residents each year. As a beacon of multicultural sensitivity, the school annually exceeds the national medical school average of Hispanic students enrolled. The school’s clinical practice is the largest multidisciplinary medical group in South Texas with 850 physicians in more than 100 specialties. The school has a highly productive research enterprise where world leaders in Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cancer, aging, heart disease, kidney disease and many other fields are translating molecular discoveries into new therapies. The Long School of Medicine is home to a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center known for prolific clinical trials and drug development programs, as well as a world-renowned center for aging and related diseases.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, also referred to as UT Health San Antonio, is one of the country’s leading health sciences universities and is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. With missions of teaching, research, patient care and community engagement, its schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have graduated more than 37,000 alumni who are leading change, advancing their fields, and renewing hope for patients and their families throughout South Texas and the world. To learn about the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit http://www.uthscsa.edu.

Curing Coronasomnia: Four Tips from Neuroscience (Neuroscience)

Kristine Keane, a clinical and sports neuropsychologist suggested some tips.

Covid-19 has affected all aspects of our lives, especially our sleep. Clinical insomnia has seen a significant rise since the pandemic began, and it is expected to continue.  Although we are well aware of how important sleep is, it is often one of the first things we neglect, especially in times of uncertainty. Even if we are only facing light sleep deprivation, it can still cause unwanted changes in our brains’ health.

The brain is the control center for everything we do and is the most vital organ in the body—it controls movement, circulation, heart rate, temperature, and many other bodily functions. It is also responsible for learning, memory, how you pay attention, and how you receive and process information. Sleep is the foundation of brain health, and without it, we can compromise all of the functions it performs daily.

The pandemic’s changes to your daily life may affect your ability to get your best sleep. You may not be getting your usual amount of exercise because gyms are closed or are not as easily accessible. Even if the gym is not a part of your weekly routine, you may be moving around less due to staying at home most, if not all, of the day. When the body is less physically active, it may not feel ready to sleep at its usual time. You may also be moving around less due to having fewer social interactions and activities.   A lack of social interactions means you may not be receiving the mental stimulation and meaningful connections that come with them. Lack of mental stimulation and emotional connectivity can lead to difficulty relaxing and quieting your brain when trying to go to bed.

Routines are increasingly hard to follow with ever-changing regulations necessary to meet the novel pandemic’s needs. Many of us are getting out of bed later, getting into bed earlier, or not even entirely changing out of our pajamas (even video calls can only see from our waist up)—this disruption to a routine impacts the sleep schedule that is crucial to getting your best sleep. The key is to make sure you are getting at least six to eight hours of sleep per night—six to eight consecutive hours of sleep. Waking up throughout the night, interrupts vital sleep cycles that help your brain restore and recover from the day before.

If you are not getting enough sleep, consider altering your sleep behaviors beginning with these four tips from neuroscience

1. Stay in tune with your body’s natural rhythym!

Melatonin, a chemical released from the pineal gland that lies deep inside your brain, helps make you feel relaxed and drowsy and fall asleep. Your pineal gland releases melatonin in its rhythm over a twenty-four-hour period. Melatonin is naturally low in the daytime and rises during the evening. Be aware of your natural drowsiness as you prepare for bed. How many times have you stayed up later than intended, bingeing the rest of a season or answering emails? When you stay up late, you can miss your body’s natural sleep cues and have trouble falling asleep later. The lack of schedule can significantly disrupt your body’s biological signals. If your bedtime routine is almost nonexistent—getting home from work, brushing your teeth, getting into pajamas—you can miss natural sleep cues altogether, and that feeling of sleepiness may never come. Establish a new routine that works and stick to it, so when that melatonin wave comes, all you have to do is jump on!

2. Put away all screens 60 minutes before you go to sleep.

If you are having difficulty falling asleep, the culprit may be your screen time habits before going to bed. Most Americans are spending most of their day in front of a screen. These screens can emit high levels of blue light rays that suppress your pineal gland, affecting melatonin production. Since artificial light throws off your brain’s natural ability to drift off to sleep, you will want to turn off all screens one hour before you slumber—that includes checking even one Tweet or text message! You might want to turn off your notifications altogether, so you are not even tempted to pick up and check your phone.

3. Switch things up with a new bedtime routine.

Many of us are having a hard time pulling themselves away from the computer and stepping away from work or school—the lines between home and work/school life are almost nonexistent today. If you are replying to emails or reading or even engaging in intense conversations, which we often save for right before bed, the cognitive activity can keep you awake. Make sure you have a set end-time for your work or school day, and do not let it linger into your bedtime routine. Instead, switch things up. During the latter part of your evening, do something that helps you relax and is saved just for bedtime. Set yourself up to catch that melatonin wave when it arises and ride it to sleep.

4. Be mindful when waking and going to sleep.

The ultimate cause of sleep problems is the inability to turn off your thinking just before you go to sleep. Many Americans live more solitary lives due to the pandemic and are not having the chance to engage with others, such as getting together with friends and conversing, which helps alleviate mental strain that we often feel right before we go to bed. 

Be mindful of the time when you transition from being awake to asleep. Before you go to bed, slow it down by sitting on the edge of your bed and take time to notice your breathing. When you lie down, continue to pay attention to your breathing until you fade to sleep. If you still have difficulty falling asleep, consider this simple grounding exercise: Slowly think of five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste, and then return your attention to your breathing. When waking up, set yourself up for the day by taking five minutes just before you get out of bed every day to simply breathe, and think about your intentions for the day. A stressful start to the day can end in a sleepless night. Research shows that you have the highest level of stress hormones in your body when you first wake up.

Allow sleep to be the constant you may need in your life. Even if everything in the world is changing daily, allow your sleep schedule to remain the same, your brain will thank you. 

This article is originally written by Dr. Kristine Keane, who is a clinical and sports neuropsychologist, professor at the School of Medicine at Seton Hall University, and co-author of Be All In, Raising Kids for Success in Sports and Life and is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses. To read original click here.

Hidden Causes of Low Testosterone That Could Change Your Life (Biology)

How to regain hormonal balance and optimize cognitive function.

You don’t have to look far to find a new testosterone clinic, or T clinic, popping up. While many of these jump right into replacement therapy, they often don’t uncover why testosterone is low, a growing problem, surprisingly, amongst younger people.

Low T, as it’s often referred to, is a crucial hormonal concern for both reproductive health and longevity. We now know testosterone is responsible for bone density and muscle strength as well as cognition and brain health—not just sex drive. In a study of over 1400 people, an alarming 1 in 4 men over 30 had deficient T levels with a projected 38% increase in the population by 2025. 

So where is this coming from and can we stop or reverse it? It appears multifactorial, arising from a few different causes that are in our control. Let’s examine hidden causes:

  • Key nutrient deficiencies
  • Mold and environmental toxins
  • Chronic stress
  • Ibuprofen use

Eighty to 90% of soil is depleted of nutrients compared to decades ago and 95% of our food nutrients come from the soil. This is due to poorly maintained land and over-farming including the rampant use of pesticides. This likely has resulted in both chronic inflammation and low hormone production. Key nutrients we need for proper metabolism and testosterone formation include vitamins A, D, and zinc, which happen to be some of the highest nutrient deficiencies nationwide. From proper supplementation with these nutrients and consuming organic, non-GMO produce may help restore health and hormone production. 

Along with the lack of necessary nutrients, molds have been recognized as serious endocrine/hormone disruptors. Certain molds that grow in water-damaged buildings, furniture, and upholstery, especially in humid climates, have been shown to have estrogen-like properties which may throw off hormone levels and lower testosterone. Be sure to check your home, car, and office for mold as a proactive measure given how many people are affected by mold exposure. This may save you and your loved ones from not only potential hormone imbalance but additional health issues people experience from toxic mold. 

Stress is another very overlooked cause of hormone deficiency. Stress produces cortisol, a hormone that competes with the production of testosterone and sex hormones. Living in a fast-paced, high expectation society keeps cortisol levels high and therefore impairs testosterone production. Adaptogens like Ashwagandha have been gaining tremendous popularity lately based on their ability to help breakdown excess cortisol, increasing testosterone as a result. Taking testosterone, especially under the age of 45, will not only lead to dependence but lower fertility and potentially weaken the immune system

Ibuprofen and similar non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are yet another cause of disrupted hormone production. Recently this has been shown to affect men’s Testosterone production within the reproductive organs. Those with chronic pain or inflammation who routinely take these may wish to consider proven alternative therapies including biofeedback. In a society where there’s a pill for every ill, analyzing not only what we are putting in ourselves but what changes we can make to our lifestyle may help avoid future hormonal and cognitive issues. The World Health Organization recognizes that lifestyle is one of the top risk factors for chronic diseases. Next time you or someone you know may wish to seek out a T clinic, perhaps this information may prove useful beforehand. 

As a result of low T, cognition has been known to become impaired as well. The brain needs testosterone to function properly. Particularly, studies show that diminished visual-spatial processing, memoryattention, and executive function are linked to lower testosterone levels. Clinical trials are currently ongoing using hormone replacement as a potential treatment of cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s. By eliminating toxins and stress, and supporting the body with key nutrients, one can improve not only their T levels but their overall quality of life as well. 

This article is originally written by Elliot Dinetz, who is a board-certified primary care physician with advanced certification in Functional & Integrative Medicine and is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses.