Posts tagged with "PLOS ONE"

OM can lead to OMG: Meditation is not for everyone

May 15, 2019

Meditation has been touted by millions worldwide for its ability to lower stress, zap anxiety, and increase focus, among other mental health benefits. But a study conducted at the University College of London has found that fully 25% of those who have tried it say that they don’t feel tranquil or serene; rather, they experience fear and distorted emotions, Study Finds reports.

Of 1,232 frequent meditation practitioners (people who have meditated regularly for at least two months) surveyed by researchers at the college, more than one-quarter admit they have had at least one “unpleasant experience” while meditating.

Researchers say suffering from an unpleasant meditative experience seems to be more prevalent among specific groups—among them, those who:

  • Attend a meditation retreat,
  • Only practice “deconstructive types” of meditation such as Vipassana (insight) and Koan practice used in Zen Buddhism, and
  • Experience higher levels of repetitive negative thinking.

Conversely, women and participants with religious beliefs were less likely to have a negative experience.

“These findings point to the importance of widening the public and scientific understanding of meditation beyond that of a health-promoting technique,” says lead author Marco Schlosser, a professor in UCL’s Division of Psychiatry. “Very little is known about why, when, and how such meditation-related difficulties can occur: More research is now needed to understand the nature of these experiences. When are unpleasant experiences important elements of meditative development, and when are they merely negative effects to be avoided?”

For the study, participants were surveyed online about their meditation history, and completed assessments that measure repetitive negative thinking and self-compassion. They were also asked, “Have you ever had any particularly unpleasant experiences (e.g. anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world), which you think may have been caused by your meditation practice?”

In all, 25.6% said they’ve had an unpleasant experience (28.5% of men, 23% of women). This was especially true for those who did not have a religious affiliation (30.6%), versus 22% who did hold religious beliefs. About 29% of people who had attended a meditation retreat reported negative experiences, compared to only 19.6% of those who had never attended one.

Researchers say the results show there needs to be a greater focus on the downside to meditating, as studies are typically centered around all the good the practice offers.

“Most research on meditation has focused on its benefits, however, the range of meditative experiences studied by scientists needs to be expanded,” says Schlosser. “It is important at this point not to draw premature conclusions about the potential negative effects of meditation.”

The study findings are published in the May 9 edition of the journal, PLOS One.

Research contact: @ucl

Personal encounters with the ‘almighty’ result in better mental health

April 26, 2019

For thousands of years, people have reported experiencing deeply moving encounters with a higher power or an ultimate reality—either spontaneously or while under the influence of psychedelic drugs.

But, how do such encounters affect them—both in the moment and in the long term? Do they undergo changes in their belief systems? Are they still afraid of death?

Following a comprehensive survey of subjects who claim to have crossed paths with the almighty, researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine report that more than two-thirds of self-identified atheists shed that label after their brush with the eternal, regardless of whether it was spontaneous rendezvous or was facilitated by taking magic mushrooms.

Moreover, the researchers say, a majority of respondents attributed lasting positive changes in their psychological health—e.g., life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning—even decades after their initial experience.

The findings, described in a paper published on April 23 in the journal PLOS ONE, add to evidence that such deeply meaningful experiences may have healing properties, the researchers say. And the study’s design, they add, is the first to systematically and rigorously compare reports of spontaneous God encounter experiences with those occasioned, or catalyzed, by psychedelic substances.

“Experiences that people describe as encounters with God or a representative of God have been reported for thousands of years, and they likely form the basis of many of the world’s religions,” says lead researcher Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “And although modern Western medicine doesn’t typically consider ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ experiences as one of the tools in the arsenal against sickness, our findings suggest that these encounters often lead to improvements in mental health.”

The historic and widespread anecdotal evidence for their benefits led to the research team’s latest effort to research the value, and possible downsides, of such encounters, Griffiths says.

For the new study, the scientists used data from 4,285 people worldwide who responded to online advertisements to complete one of two 50-minute online surveys about God-encounter experiences. The surveys asked participants to recall their single most memorable encounter experience with the “God of their understanding,” a “higher power,” “ultimate reality” or “an aspect or representative of God, such as an angel.” They also asked how respondents felt about their experience and whether and how it changed their lives.

About 69% of the participants were men, and 88% were white. Of those who reported using a psychedelic, 1,184 took psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”), 1,251 said they took LSD, 435 said they took ayahuasca (a plant-based brew originating with indigenous cultures in Latin America), and 606 said they took DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine), also a naturally occurring substance found in certain plants and animals.

Of the total participants, 809 were those who responded to the non-drug survey, whereas 3,476 responded to the psychedelics survey. Respondents were an average age of 38 when they took the survey. The people who said they had a God encounter experience when on a psychedelic reported that these experiences happened at age 25 on average, whereas those whose experience was spontaneous reported having it at an average age of 35.

Among other key findings:

  • About 75% of respondents in both the non-drug and psychedelics groups rated their “God encounter” experience as among the most meaningful and spiritually significant in their lifetime, and both groups attributed to it positive changes in life satisfaction, purpose and meaning.
  • Independent of psychedelics use, more than two-thirds of those who said they were atheists before the experience no longer identified as such afterward.
  • Most participants, in both the non-drug and psychedelics groups, reported vivid memories of the encounter experience, which frequently involved communication with some entity having the attributes of consciousness (approximately 70%), benevolence (75%), intelligence (80%), sacredness (75% ), and eternal existence (70%).
  • Although both groups reported a decreased fear of death, 70% of participants in the psychedelics group reported this change, compared with 57% among non-drug respondents.
  • In both groups, about 15% of the respondents said their experience was the most psychologically challenging of their lives.
  • In the non-drug group, participants were most likely to choose “God” or “an emissary of God” (59%) as the best descriptor of their encounter, while the psychedelics group were most likely (55%) to choose “ultimate reality.”

For future studies, Griffiths said his team would like to explore what factors predispose someone to having such a memorable and life-altering perceived encounter, and they would like to see what happens in the brain during the experience.

Research contact: rgriff@jhmi.edu

The tweets of Canadians and Americans reflect national stereotypes

February 8, 2019

@JustinTrudeau’s tweets are more friendly and courteous than those posted regularly by @realDonaldTrump—and it turns out that both men mirror the personalities and communication styles of their constituents, based on findings of a study conducted.recently by McMaster University in Ontario.

The study, which examined differences in the language used in nearly 40 million tweets suggests that the national stereotypes about the population of each nation—for example, that Canadians tend to be polite and nice, while Americans are negative and assertive—are reflected on Twitter, even if those widely held (but fixed and oversimplified) beliefs aren’t completely accurate.

Linguistic experts from the school used Twitter in an attempt to better understand national identity on a mass scale and where stereotypes might originate. They isolated  the words, emoticons, and emojis used disproportionately on Twitter by individuals from each country.

The findings, published online last November in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that national stereotypes are grounded –at least partially—in the words we choose. The work builds on earlier research from 2016 when the same team analyzed 3 million tweets.

“The most distinctive word choices of Americans and Canadians on Twitter paint a very accurate and familiar picture of the stereotypes we associate with people from these nations,” says Daniel Schmidtke, co-author of the study and a post-doctoral researcher at McMaster.

Canadians were far more positive on Twitter, using words such as: great, thanks, good, amazing, and happy For example, on February 5, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted, “We’re working hard to build infrastructure across the country to make life better for Canadians. Our investments are #BuildingCanada-and creating good, middle class jobs along the way.”

Americans tended to use more negative words like: hate, miss, mad, feel, swear, tired. For example, on February 5, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, “With Caravans marching through Mexico and toward our Country, Republicans must be prepared to do whatever is necessary for STRONG Border Security. Dems do nothing. If there is no Wall, there no Security. Human Trafficking, Drugs and Criminals of all dimensions – KEEP OUT!”

Americans preferred emojis, whereas Canadians preferred emoticons. Americans also used more netspeak like ‘lol’, ‘idk’, and ‘af’.

“It’s tempting to think that Canadians tweet more nicely than Americans because they really are more nice than Americans,” says Bryor Snefjella, the lead author of the study and a graduate student in the Reading Lab in McMaster’s Department of Linguistics and Languages, who was supervised by another co-author of the study, Associate Professor Victor Kuperman.

“But when we put all the data together, it suggests that something more complicated is happening,” he says.

The wrinkle is that other studies which have surveyed large numbers of Canadians and Americans have consistently shown that such national stereotypes are not accurate. There isn’t any hard evidence to support that an average American’s and average Canadian’s personality traits are different.

“The Twitter behavior we observe doesn’t actually reflect the real underlying personality profile of an average American or Canadian,” says Schmidtke.

To explore further, they exposed study participants to the most typical words and emojis from each nation. The participants were not told anything about how the words were chosen. They were then asked what the personality traits were of someone who often uses the most American and most Canadian words and emojis.

The results? Someone who uses very Canadian words has a personality matching the stereotype of a Canadian, and someone who uses very American words has a personality matching the stereotype of an American.

The research team argues that their results show an identity construction strategy in action: Canadians and Americans may create their national character stereotype through their language use.

In future, researchers hope to compare other stereotypes between people in different sets of countries.

Research contact: vickup@mcmaster.ca

The ‘real dirt’ on your money

January 15, 2018

While estimates vary, more Americans than ever before are germaphobes—people for whom a handshake may be a risky transaction, to be counteracted immediately by hand washing or hand sanitizing. Indeed, according to an article by The Free Dictionary, 42% of Millennials, 27% of Generation Xers and 21% of Baby Boomers fear exposure to germs.

Perhaps the most famous germaphobe at the moment is President Donald Trump, who has admitted to avoiding “contamination” by using a straw to drink out of a glass and preferring not to shake hands, when possible.  According to results of a recent study, maybe the POTUS, who says he is a billionaire, also should fear money.

Covered by Time magazine in late 2017, the findings of the study add to a growing body of research that has established that paper money can harbor thousands of microbes from every environment it touches—whether that’s someone’s fingers, a waiter’s apron, a vending machine or the dingy area under someone’s mattress.

During the course of the study, first published in the journal PLOS ONE last April, researchers swabbed $1 bills from a bank in New York City to see what was growing and subsisting on paper currency. They found hundreds of species of microorganisms. The most abundant were ones that cause acne, as well as plenty of harmless skin bacteria. They also identified vaginal bacteria, microbes from mouths, DNA from pets and viruses.

Other research has shown that some bank notes and coins are home to pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella and staphylococcus aureus, which can lead to serious illness.

Cash also is often streaked with drugs, according to the Journal of Analytical Toxicology. In a study of ten $1 bills from cities nationwide, nearly 80% of them showed traces of cocaine.

What’s more, the environment of paper money is welcoming to whatever is going around. The $1 bill is 75% cotton and 25% linen, according to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing—which offers a soft environment into which microbes can settle.

However, there is no reason to panic, whether you are a germaphobe or not: Cash doesn’t typically have the right temperature or moisture conditions to allow microbes to grow and proliferate. Its porous surface actually helps it hold on to most of the germs it’s carrying, so not many microbes wipe off on your hands—meaning money is not very good at transmitting diseases.

Experts say to wash your hands after touching currency and before eating.

There also has been some thought given to changing the materials that money is made with. Some research has shown that plastic polymer bank notes, like those used in Australia and Canada, are “cleaner” than American bills, according to the Time report.

Research contact: @AbigailAbrams