We’ve all experienced the distinct effects of a nice analgesic, whether it was amidst a debilitating rhinovirus, or after one of those over-did-it workouts: the ease of movement, the decrease in physical stress, and most importantly the shift of focus from your pain to reality. We should all be thrilled then, to learn that on top of reducing physical symptoms of pain, drugs normally taken to alleviate minor aches and pains could actually work to reduce the emotional twinge of social rejection, according to recent research.
The study, powered by C. Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky, gave volunteers either acetaminophen or placebo, and then subjected them to a game of virtual ball-toss. Over time, subjects were gradually rejected from the game. Those who had been given the analgesic demonstrated signs that they experienced fewer feelings of rejection, as was inferred through brain imaging of the anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with feelings of emotional pain and desperation.
DeWall and his colleagues also demonstrated the effects of acetaminophen on a person’s moral judgment. When confronted with typical ethical quandaries, such as whether or not it’s right to sacrifice one person to ensure the safety of others, subjects showed less hesitancy in declaring their moral choice.
Though these researchers are quick to point out that no one should expect to correct their emotional problems with such a common drug, I think it’s important to realize just how effective a small chemical push towards recovering from a refusal could be. So often, when met with defeat or failure, it’s our natural reaction to dwell on our lack of fortune, to lose confidence or determination, or simply to become angry and resentful. In a world where there’s a constant competition for success, our failings become exaggerated, and our emotional anguish increases. As more and more Americans (over 27 million) elect to take strong psychotropic prescription antidepressants, it’s comforting to think that a slight mood improvement can be afforded through more mild drugs like Tylenol. Of course, acetaminophen has its own dangers, and causes liver failure if abused. Still, whether one is applying to graduate schools and jobs, or asking someone out on a date, a little Tylenol couldn’t hurt.
Social Analgesics- Gary Stix
Many a scientist has noted in the light of recent discovery that what has been scientifically elucidated has often been artistically intuited even hundreds of years before. Many phenomena of psychology or even physics have been illuminated first through the intuition and hypersensitive reflection of art. Illusions within the visual arts that modify perception of space and movement understand the psychology of perception without being themselves a science. Looking at a painting, one may begin to question why and how the painting gives us a sense of light or space. Neuroscientists at the University of Leicester are putting this principle to use in a scientific study, teaming up with a well-known international artist whose pieces specialize in manipulating human percepts. They hope to work with him towards a greater understanding of how the mind apprehends visual stimuli.
The neuroscientist, Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, attained renowned status after discovering a particular type of neuron that fired in an ‘abstract’ manner to pictures of different individuals, allowing for some predictive value of whom the person was looking at from a data of their neuronal firing. Fascinated with human perception, he teamed up with well-known Argentinean artist Mariano Molina to study the mind’s perception of art, particularly in juxtaposition to its perception of regular photos and individuals. Molina will spend five months working in the lab, learning about how perception works from a scientific viewpoint. In turn, Quiroga will get a look at perception through an artist’s frame.
Molina has discovered that many of his pieces of art intuit unconscious principles of perception that science had previously identified. Consider one of Molina’s paintings: “The Center of Gaze.” Staring into it, one’s eyes are immediately drawn to the center. Center? How do I know that’s the center? At least, that would be the afterthought of one with a normal sense of perception. Upon further study, conscious reflection dwells on the “how” behind what the eye has intuited. This process that an individual feels within herself, the ex post facto rationalization of a quick and thoughtless, yet insightful, perception is akin to the methodology of the project itself.
Molina will complete a dozen pieces of art within a five month period, helping to draw insight into perceptual processes intuited by the artist. Molina believes that his artistic ability will also benefit from the scientific understanding of perception. Scheduled to begin in November, the project is hoped to bring scientific knowledge as well as an enriched appreciation for art, and encourage communication between the sciences and the arts that is of mutual benefit.
Through humanity’s existence there has been a backbone of culture, tradition and out of that has come religion. Since ancient times, humans as a species have devoted their time and mental capacity to a higher being that we cannot physically perceive nor interact with. There are varying viewpoints from different disciplines that try to explain the nature of this God and where he or she resides, if anywhere. While many have displaced intelligent design as a plausible theory, mathematics offers that there may be divine math behind our existence, theoretical physics has routinely said that particle dynamics can answer our questions, while biochemistry presents the primordial soup theory and DNA replication. However, there are people among us who claim to have had “mystical experiences” that put them in touch with this ever elusive God on a level experienced by few.
Now, neuroscience has something to say about this “God experience.” Michael Persinger, a cognitive scientist at Laurentian University in Canada believes that God lives within our own brains, implying that these mystical experiences may be contrived. He has developed a neuroethological apparatus deemed the “God Helmet” that seems to induce the feeling of another being’s presence to it’s wearer. The device is modeled off of a snowboarding helmet and contains metal coils that cover the whole brain with a magnetic field when fully powered up. The subject puts on the helmet and then sits in a dark, comfortable room with eye coverings as the coils are activated. In the experiments, magnetic activity above the right temporal lobe elicits the most intense feeling of presence of other beings to the wearer. Persinger reports that 80% of the helmet’s wearers experience presence of another being, or the so-called “God sense.” The idea here is that the brain itself is creating the feeling of divine presence without the presence of the divine. Given Persinger’s results, neuroscience says that we may have created our creator, and that the divine is nothing but a function of our own brain activity. Maybe those that claim to have danced with the divine simply have above normal temporal lobe activity. This research also sheds light on the more familiar feeling that someone is “watching you,” which is essentially the same feeling of presence.
It is safe to say that we may never know if our creator resides inside our own minds, in another inaccessible dimension or walks among us. Until then, we can only investigate our own existence as a function of what we can observe or from what we can infer about information we have already obtained. For a more in depth exploration of the creator question, check out Discovery Channel’s “Through The Wormole” narrated by Morgan Freeman (just follow the consecutive parts!).