Happy holidays! As the year draws to a close, one thing I’m celebrating is the fun I've had helping put together the magazine I edit, Scientific American Mind. I am looking forward to working on new articles and projects in 2013. (We have some surprises in store.) I’m pleased about my growing and attentive audience for Streams of Consciousness, too. Thank you for reading, thinking and, when you have to, taking me to task!
This post introduces the January/February 2013 Scientific American Mind, which debuted online Wednesday. If I sound a little giddy with optimism, it’s because I truly am excited about the magazine, this blog, and what I get to do at my job everyday—and because that mood suits this post. It doesn’t seem to hurt. In fact, I may have just managed to cheer myself up.
Wow, This Is An Amazing Story!
Optimism. Not everyone is upbeat about it, and the whole idea may be unproven. It could even have serious drawbacks, which we’ve detailed in previous stories (see “Can Positive Thinking Be Negative?” by Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz). Still, I am often trying to fight my way over to the sunny side—and I think I’m going to keep at it. Why? For one thing, I like it over there. Plus, there is at least some data suggesting that my struggle to smile is worth it.
The health benefits of positive thinking may be tenuous, and some realistic pessimism is often warranted. But from a psychological standpoint, thinking everything is (or will be) fine is what resilience is all about. And on the flip side, wearing a dark lens puts us at risk for mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. In my experience, it’s also more fun to believe in the positive, or at least emotionally neutral, aspects of a situation than to presume that the world is out to get you.
As Elaine Fox reports in “Tune Your Subliminal Biases Toward Optimism,” a nervous person giving a speech has a choice: she can glob on to the person in the front row who is dozing in his seat or focus on the majority who are mesmerized. If your boss rushes by you impatiently one morning, you could assume she is mad at you—or simply running late. My latest favorite example from my own life comes from a colleague who told me that she loved going to the dentist, a dull and unpleasant task if there is one. “What exactly do you like about the dentist?” I asked, thinly disguising my incredulity. Her answer: “It’s like a spa for your mouth.” The feeling of clean teeth delighted her.
Some people, like my coworker, are predisposed toward positivity, others not so much. If you are in the not-so-much group, you can train yourself to adopt a more positive outlook using a simple computerized method called Cognitive Bias Modification. It uses a subliminal process to repeatedly direct attention either away from unpleasantness or toward appealing or happy stimuli or thoughts. A CBM app is not yet available for your smart phone, but you can still try some lower-tech tricks for worming out of your gloomy mood. Find out more by reading the story.
Value to Video Games?
If you are looking for other ways to spruce up your mind, check out an electronics store. Head straight for the first-person shooter video games, pick out a few and plan on spending your downtime practicing. Your arduous efforts ducking behind shipping containers and blasting enemy soldiers and aliens will pay off in mental currency. You will see with sharper eyes. You will reason in three dimensions with greater speed and clarity. And you will make better on-the-fly decisions in response to visual input. Training to be a laparoscopic surgeon or a pilot? Playing these games is perfect preparation.
Should we all run out and buy these electronic atrocities? I haven’t—yet. I do worry about the violence, which can make people more aggressive, although the strongest effects wear off within half an hour, experts say. Some 8 percent of kids seem to get addicted to gaming, too, although I think if my kid had a problem with too much gaming, I’d have seen it already.
Allowing moderate use of these types of games might be reasonable in some cases, because the research on their benefits is strong and compelling (see “How Video Games Change the Brain,” by Lydia Denworth). That said, as with anything you put in a child’s (or adult’s) hands, the person needs to be prepared to use it responsibly. People with emotional issues or who tend to be aggressive anyway may not be good candidates. And a child should be old enough to clearly understand the difference between fantasy and reality. Nobody wants to take chances with something as troublesome as violence, especially in light of the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Scientists and game designers are now trying to figure out how to create electronic entertainment that benefits the brain in a more peaceful fashion. When that happens, I’m on-board for sure.
In another feature in the issue, a psychologist and a lawyer team up to show how psychological science can improve the accuracy of courtroom decisions, preventing miscarriages of justice in which the wrong person is put behind bars. They present evidence-based solutions for incorrect eyewitness accounts, false confessions, racial bias, prejudicial courtroom procedure and picking innocent individuals in subject line-ups. It’s an important story with widespread implications and clear prescriptions for change (see “Your Brain on Trial,” by Scott O. Lilienfeld and Robert Byron).
The issue also features a book excerpt describing a psychologist’s tour of a high security prison. The goal of this terrifying trip: to extract advice from psychopaths. These conscienceless criminals, it turns out, have a lot to teach us. Their tendency toward ruthlessness, charm, focus and fearlessness can be astoundingly useful—although these traits must be tempered to avoid troublesome side effects (see “Wisdom from Psychopaths,” by Kevin Dutton).