Compassion, intuition and bonding, or why those with less give more

image1Christmas is a time to exchange gifts with friends and family. Those of us who haven’t completed their shopping yet will frantically try to do so within the next couple of days. This time of year is not, however, only about giving to our loved ones. Historically, Christmas has always been associated with good will and giving, not just to those we know, but to anyone in need. But, why do we do it and is giving something that only benefits the receivers?

Scientists have known for a while that helping others goes hand in hand with longer life and better health. Such improved well-being could be a result of the ‘stress-buffering’ effect of giving. For example, providing help improves our mood and caring for others is accompanied by the release of feel-good hormones (such as oxitocin and prolactin) and natural opioids. Indeed, older people who dedicate time to helping others, tend to cope much better with stressful life events such as illness, financial difficulties or death of a loved one.

image2We know that people on the lower end of the income ladder tend to give a greater proportion of their income to charities than the wealthy. Scientists have also found that people from lower social ranks are more generous towards strangers in distress and often have more trust in others. Considering that they have fewer resources, experience more daily stress and live in a more threatening environment, this seems like a paradox. There is, however, logic behind such charitable behaviour. Since people with lower incomes are less independent and have less control over their lives, they tend to rely more on others. Such interdependency encourages individuals to form stronger social bonds and makes us more attuned to the needs of others. It is these social connections that buffer those less affluent from stress, therefore encouraging them to invest more in their bonds with others.

Would it then be possible to increase empathy in order to encourage people to help others? It appears that the starting point in this process is self-compassion. Writing about a value that is important to us makes us feel more sympathy and love towards ourselves. As a result, we feel less threatened by others, less vulnerable to criticism and more inclined to be charitable.

Another psychological experience that affects giving is the use of intuition versus deliberation. It seems that the more we rely on intuition in decision making, the more cooperative our actions are. Intuitive thinking is faster and more emotional than rational deliberation and the more time we take to reflect, the more selfish our decisions become. Logic is cold indeed!

Does this mean that we are naturally generous, but that overthinking can cause us to override this instinct? Well, this could depend on the amount of cooperation required in our daily lives. We usually interact with the same people on a daily basis and, since we value our reputation, we try our best to maintain good relationship with these people. Perhaps this is particularly true if we are of lower social rank and therefore, more dependent on others. No wonder our automatic reaction would be to cooperate.

Does this mean we should rely on our generous intuition and  not spend too much time thinking about what to get our loved ones this Christmas? We can’t say; but, whatever we choose to do this year, what better time than the festive season to increase our bonds with others and help those in need?

Post by Jadwiga Nazimek


Lindsay, E.K., Creswell, J.D. (2014) Helping the self help others: self-affirmation increases self-compassion and pro-social behaviors. Frontiers in Psychology 5: 1-9.

Pulin, M.J., Brown, S.L., Dillard, A., Smith, D.M. (2013) Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality. American Journal of Public Health 103: 1649-1655.

Piff, P.K., Kraus, M.W., Cote, S., Cheng, B.H., Keltner, D. (2010) Having Less, Giving More: The Influence of Social Class on Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 99 (5) 771–784.

Click to access Piffetal.pdf

Rand, D.G., Greene, J.D., Nowak, M.A. (2012) Spontaneous giving and calculated greed
Nature 489: 427-430.

Click to access Greene_Rand_and_Nowak_Spontaneous_Giving_Calculated_Greed.pdf

Meditation – science versus spirituality?

Image courtesy of tiverylucky at
Image courtesy of tiverylucky at

The ancient eastern tradition of contemplation has slowly but steadily infiltrated the western world.  But what is it all about and why are so many people taking it up?

There are quite a few ways to meditate. Some of them, e.g.  yogic meditation called Kirtan Kriya, involve chanting of mantras: first aloud, then in a whisper, and then silently. This is sometimes followed by breathing and relaxing visualizations, e.g. forming mental images of light. Another popular type of meditation is mindfulness. Mindfulness means paying attention to the immediate experience with curiosity and acceptance. Do you know the feeling when you arrived home with no recollection of the route you have just driven because you have been thinking about the past or worrying about future? Mindful presence in the moment aims to teach us more conscious ways of living, as opposed to being on the ‘auto pilot’.

Contrary to what we might think, this type of meditation does not require controlling our thoughts or emptying our minds (although that would be nice, it is not going to happen straight away!). Rather, it involves observing your own experience (sensations, emotions and thoughts), noticing the thoughts and letting them go, just as you notice clouds in the sky.

Image courtesy of iosphere at
Image courtesy of iosphere at

Various forms of meditation appear to have a whole range of beneficial effects on our wellbeing. They reduce stress as well as symptoms of mental illness, especially depression and anxiety in a similar degree to medication. People suffering from chronic pain and stress-related physical illness also cope better. How exactly does meditation do that?

It seems that contemplative practice can change the functioning of our mind and body on several levels. Psychologically, switching off the automatic pilot helps us to pay more attention to our goals and values and act more in line with them.  Mindfulness also increases self-acceptance and the ability to regulate one’s mood and emotions. This in turn seems to be underpinned by beneficial changes in the brain: people who meditate have increased activity, more grey matter and better pathways connecting the areas responsible for regulating emotions and attention.

Finally, some research shows that meditation affects our body on a physiological level: it might lower the level of the stress hormone cortisol, improve the response of the immune system, and even increase the level of a substance that protects our cells from deterioration (telomerase), thus slowing down the ageing process.

This sounds very promising, but how easy is it to scientifically investigate an ancient contemplative practice concerned with spiritual growth and lifelong development?  One of the main problems is that many studies fail to use an appropriate comparison. For example, some studies compare people who have meditated for a long time with those who have no meditation experience. In such cases it is difficult to establish whether it is meditation that causes the changes in the brain and behaviour. It could be that certain personality features attract some people to meditation and could also be responsible for the differences in the brain.

Image courtesy of Photokanok at
Image courtesy of Photokanok at

More and more often randomized controlled trials are used by researchers when studying meditation. In such studies a randomly chosen group of people is taught to practice meditation, and another group of people serves as a control, e.g. is taught relaxation techniques. This way we can be more confident that the differences between the groups at the end of the practice are not due to personality or factors such as relaxation. However, these studies tend to be quite short (e.g. they last a few weeks), whereas meditation is a skill developed over long periods of time.

Thus, having taken apart the skill of contemplating the present moment, science found that it can help us with stress, mental illness and pain. We can measure changes in the brain, mood and behaviour, but the more metaphysical aspects of meditation are difficult to capture. Personally I found practicing mindfulness very helpful in dealing with daily stresses. The quiet mind is an elusive goal, but meditation is about immersing in ‘being’, rather than ‘doing’. As the father of the western mindfulness Kabat-Zinn said ‘After all we are called human beings, not human doings.’

So, have you found your nearest meditation class yet?

Post By: Jadwiga Nazimek


Teasdale et al. (1995) How does cognitive therapy prevent depressive relapse and why should attentional control (mindfulness) training help? Behav. Res. Ther. 33 (1) 25-39

Lavretsky, H. Et al. (2013) A pilot study of yogic meditation for family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms: effects on mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity. Geriatric Psychiatry 28: 57-65.

Sahdra et al., (2011) Enhanced response inhibition during intensive meditation training predicts improvements in self-reported adaptive socioemotional functioning. Emotion 11(2): 299-312.

Exercise and brain power: how does physical activity help us think?

We might believe that the best way to improve grades at school is to spend more time studying, even at the cost of physical activity. According to research however, we might be wrong. In fact, girls and boys with high level of cardiovascular fitness do better in subjects such as English, science and maths than those less active. A healthy set of heart and lungs appear to have more influence on grades than factors such as self-esteem, parents’ income, weight at birth, prenatal smoking and your subjective academic ability.

Exercise improveimage1s goal-directed activity. This includes selecting, planning and coordinating actions, as well as ignoring distracters and managing several pieces of information at once allowing inhibition and flexible thinking. The cognitive control involved is supported by the frontal parts of the brain, which continue to develop well into our twenties. Furthermore, compared to their sedentary peers, physically active adolescents also show better memory – a function supported by the temporal region of the brain (behind the temples).

What might be more important for those of us well past our adolescent years is that exercise helps to maintain mental abilities in old age. Physical fitness at midlife reduces the risk of dementia, and in those with dementia physical activity can attenuate its progress. This is because physically active seniors tend to have larger volumes of the brain in areas that typically shrink in dementia, such as the hippocampus.

But how exactly can sport increase our academic performance and thinking power? One way is by reducing children’s disrupting behaviour and increasing their ability to attend to the task in class. Also physical activity goes in hand with better brain structure, with a larger volume of some areas. Such beneficial effect of exercise on the brain could be related to the change in the levels of the substances that stimulate the growth of brain cells. It seems that when sedentary people undertake exercise, they produce more of these growth factors immediately following activity.

In those, however, who exercise regularly, the mechanism might be slightly different. Instead of producing more of the growth substance, the brain becomes more sensitive to it. Related to thinking prowess, exercising can also make us feel more lively and energetic, allowing us to think better. This is because physical activity enhances levels of certain chemical messengers in the brain, e.g. acetylcholine. These messengers activate areas of the brain supporting cognition, emotion and arousal. Finally, in older adults exercise seems to help to recruit compensatory brain areas, which help in completing the tasks.

Li et al. (2014) Acute Aerobic Exercise Increased Cortical Activity during Working Memory: A Functional MRI Study in Female College Students. PLoS One  9(6): e99222. Published online Jun 9, 2014. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0099222
Li et al. (2014) Acute Aerobic Exercise Increased Cortical Activity during Working Memory: A Functional MRI Study in Female College Students. PLoS One 9(6): e99222. Published online Jun 9, 2014. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0099222

How much should we exercise then and what sort of exercise would be best? Opinions are mixed, but it seems that moderate aerobic activity might be optimal, although strengthening exercise also brings cognitive benefits in seniors. Before undertaking physical activity we also need to remember that exercise carries risk and that it might be worth asking our doctor for advice. One thing is certain though, the human body is a machine designed to move!

Post by: Jadwiga Nazimek

What is your gut telling you?

Intuition might seem like a concept too vague to be worthy of scientific investigation. Some cognitive psychologists see it as the opposite of rational thinking or reasoning – the time-saving ‘rule of thumb’. We often talk about it as the ‘gut feeling’, or the ‘feeling of knowing’. Intuition allows us to make a quick decision, based  on our stored knowledge and without the need for conscious deliberation. Such an ability is not only useful but often necessary in our fast paced hectic world – no wonder that the human brain is so well adapted to using intuitive judgments.

Perceiving the world, e.g. seeing something, is accomplished through brain structures that form a hierarchy. For instance, at the lower end of this hierarchy sensory regions of the brain (the concrete-processing areas) respond to and interpret physical features of what we see, such as colour or orientation of lines. Higher up, separate areas (the abstract specialists) then analyse more abstract characteristics, e.g. category or meaning.

It would be hard and time-consuming to process every single object in a bottom-up manner (from concrete to abstract); the visual cortex would need to perform a detailed analysis and generate numerous possible options as to what an object could be. Hence, the brain adopts a different strategy. If we look at an image of a fragmented object and at an image containing only scrambled lines we can quickly recognise which one can be completed into something meaningful, even though we do not consciously recognize the object (see below).

An image of a bed: fragmented (left) and scrambled (right). Luu P, Geyer A, Fidopiastis C, Campbell G, et al. (2010) Reentrant Processing in Intuitive Perception. PLoS ONE  5(3): e9523. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009523
An image of a bed: fragmented (left) and scrambled (right).
(Luu P, Geyer A, Fidopiastis C, Campbell G, et al. (2010) Reentrant Processing in Intuitive Perception. PLoS ONE)

This is because the concrete-processing areas send information to the abstract-specialists before they engage in a laborious analysis of details. One of the brain’s ‘abstract specialists’ is the medial orbitorfrontal cortex. The orbitofrontal cortex is situated quite high in the hierarchy of perception, so does not get involved in analysing the physical details of an object. Rather, its job is to assess information from structures lower in the hierarchy and decide on the emotional content of the experience and whether or not an action is required.

Having received the signal about the fragmented image, the medial orbitofrontal cortex works out the ‘gist’ of the image – an intuitive judgment as to what this object could be. Then this ‘gist’ is sent back down to the areas of the visual cortex, where it guides more detailed analysis of the object. The whole process takes place within a couple of hundreds of milliseconds – no wonder we are not even aware of it! But, how does the orbitofrontal cortex know what the fragments of lines might mean? The image activates information that we already have stored in the vast networks of knowledge about similar items. Hence, even if we consciously do not recognize an object, we can tell that it is, in fact, a meaningful thing, as opposed to a similar image containing only scrambled lines.

So we have an idea of how the areas of the brain work together when we experience the ‘feeling of knowing’ or make intuitive decisions. Good communication between the ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract specialists’ is key in this process. What would perhaps be useful to find out is: are there ways of increasing or improving our ability to use intuition to make good decisions? Should it be encouraged in certain situations where explicit information is lacking? Is it true what they say about women’s intuition and if so – how would that manifest in the brain activity? Even though we might sometimes underestimate intuition, the brain takes advantage of it whenever possible.

Post by: Jadwiga Nazimek