WTF Fun Fact 13634 – Hunger Hormones in the Gut

Researchers at UCL have discovered that hunger hormones produced in the gut can directly influence the decision-making areas of the brain, thus affecting an animal’s behavior. This study, conducted on mice and published in Neuron, is groundbreaking in demonstrating the direct impact of gut hormones on the brain’s hippocampus, a region crucial for decision-making.

The Role of the Ventral Hippocampus

A recent study from University College London (UCL) has unveiled a fascinating insight into how our gut directly communicates with our brain, especially when it comes to food-related decisions.

During the study, scientists observed the behavior of mice in an environment with food, analyzing their actions when hungry and full. They focused on the neural activity in the ventral hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with decision-making and memory. What they found was remarkable: activity in this brain region increased as animals approached food, but this was only the case when they were full. The activity inhibited them from eating.

Conversely, in hungry mice, there was less activity in this area, allowing the hippocampus to stop inhibiting eating behavior. This change in brain activity correlated with elevated levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin in the bloodstream. The researchers further manipulated this process by either activating these ventral hippocampal neurons or removing ghrelin receptors from them, resulting in altered eating behaviors in the mice.

Hunger Hormones: Ghrelin’s Role

The study sheds light on the role of ghrelin receptors in the brain, demonstrating how the hunger hormone can cross the blood-brain barrier and influence brain activity. This discovery is significant as it shows that ghrelin directly impacts the brain to control a circuit that inhibits overeating. This mechanism, which likely exists in humans as well, ensures that the body maintains a balance in food intake.

Continuing their research, the UCL team is now exploring whether hunger can affect learning or memory. This line of investigation could reveal if mice perform tasks differently based on their hunger levels. Such research could have broad implications, potentially illuminating mechanisms involved in eating disorders or the relationship between diet and mental health risks.

Potential for Eating Disorder Research

This groundbreaking discovery opens new avenues for research into eating disorders and the prevention and treatment of such conditions. By understanding how the gut’s signals are translated into decisions in the brain, scientists might uncover new strategies to address imbalances in these mechanisms. The study’s lead author, Dr. Ryan Wee, emphasized the importance of decision-making based on hunger levels, highlighting the serious health problems that can arise when this process is disrupted.

The UCL study highlights the complex interplay between the gut and the brain, underscoring how our bodies’ internal signals can profoundly influence our behavior and decisions. As research in this field continues to evolve, it could lead to significant advancements in understanding and treating various health conditions linked to our eating behaviors and mental health.

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Source: “Hunger hormones impact decision-making brain area to drive behavior” — ScienceDaily

WTF Fun Fact 13558 – Mental Imagery

Teenagers are often vulnerable to spirals of negative thoughts, but new research suggests a possible solution: mental imagery.

The Study on Mental Imagery for Teens

Oregon State’s Hannah Lawrence, an assistant professor of psychology, spearheaded the study. The results indicated that shifting focus to mental imagery acts is a strong distractor. In fact, it’s more of a distraction than simple verbal thoughts for adolescents trapped in negative ruminations.

Lawrence’s insights shine a light on a significant issue. Drowning in past regrets not only deepens one’s sorrow but also makes emotional regulation a greater challenge.

Introducing brief diversions, especially in the form of mental imagery, offers a momentary break from these cyclic patterns. This could potentially facilitate a bridge to more extensive help through therapy, familial support, or friendships.

Experiment Procedure

Published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, the research aimed to contrast the impact of verbal thoughts and imagery-based thoughts on the general mood of adolescent participants.

The study encompassed 145 participants, aged 13 to 17, predominantly white, with 62% females. These individuals were from a rural New England area. A striking 39% displayed symptoms consistent with clinical depression.

The mood-setting phase involved an online game, inducing feelings of exclusion among the participants. Subsequently, they were divided into groups, engaging in either rumination or distraction exercises using either verbal or imagery-based prompts.

For rumination, a prompt might be “Imagine the kind of person you think you should be.” For distraction, it could be as mundane as “Think about your grocery list.”

Key Findings on the Power of Mental Imagery

The research found that both forms of rumination (verbal and imagery) affected the participants’ moods similarly. However, mental imagery stood out as a more potent form of distraction.

Lawrence noted, “Using mental imagery seems to help us improve our affect, as well as regulate our nervous system.” The form of negative thoughts, be it verbal or visual, may not matter as much as the relentless focus on distressing matters.

The potency of mental imagery is still not entirely understood. It may be the case that imagery demands more effort and is more immersive. Therefore, it elicits stronger emotional responses, thus serving as a better distraction.

There’s also evidence suggesting that visualizing mental images activates the same brain regions as witnessing those events firsthand.

The Evolution of Rumination

Lawrence has observed that while some adults stick to one form of rumination, most teenagers report employing both verbal thoughts and mental imagery. These patterns might solidify over time, becoming habitual and reinforcing the negative imagery or messages.

Lawrence highlights the crucial nature of her work with teenagers, expressing her hope that early interventions can help these youngsters navigate to adulthood without being tethered to detrimental thought patterns.

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Source: “Mental imagery a helpful way to distract teens from negative thought patterns” — Science Daily

WTF Fun Fact 13379 – Benefits of Listening to Birds

In the quest for improved mental health, one often overlooks the simple pleasures of nature. But a recent study published in Scientific Reports revealed the benefits of listening to birds and the profound impact birds can have on our mental health and well-being.

The benefits of listening to birds

Birds offer a unique connection to the natural world, proving to be a source of solace and rejuvenation. Birdsongs possess a remarkable ability to transport us to serene natural environments, even when we reside in bustling urban landscapes.

Research conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development found that listening to birdsongs, even through headphones, can alleviate negative emotions.

Interacting with birds on a regular basis has been strongly linked to better mental health. A study involving 1,300 participants, who documented their well-being multiple times a day using the Urban Mind smartphone app, revealed a significant positive association between seeing or hearing birds and improved mental well-being. Remarkably, these benefits persisted for hours after the encounter.

Even individuals diagnosed with depression displayed positive effects when exposed to birdsong and birdlife in their surroundings. This highlights the importance of preserving and protecting environments that sustain bird populations, as they can provide a natural remedy for mental health challenges.

No need for real birds

In a separate study, participants who listened to diverse birdsongs reported a decrease in depressive symptoms, anxiety, and paranoia. This effect was even observed with just two species of birdsongs, showcasing the potential of these therapeutic sounds.

In contrast, exposure to traffic noise had adverse effects on mental well-being. The study reinforces the significance of nature’s healing aspects and highlights the negative impact of urban environments on our psychological state.

Nature, including birdsong, has a profound effect on our mental well-being. The attention restoration theory suggests that spending time in nature improves concentration and reduces mental fatigue associated with urban stress.

Furthermore, researchers have linked spending time in green spaces to reduced stress, lower blood pressure, and lower cortisol levels. Engaging with nature also promotes physical activity, adding another layer of mental health benefits. Birdwatching, in particular, has been shown to enhance mental health, with individuals who savor the joy of each bird sighting reporting greater benefits.

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Source: “Why birds and their songs are good for our mental health” — Washington Post

WTF Fun Fact 13349 – Rewatching Your Favorites

When you truly want to chill out, do you find the latest Netflix show or do you enjoy rewatching your favorites? If you said the latter, you might be interested in a study that says it might be good for you.

Rewatching favorite shows can improve mental health

Studies have shown (and there’s one cited at the bottom for proof) that rewatching your favorite TV shows could help improve your mental health. It turns out the warm feelings of nostalgia we experience from reruns can actually help reduce stress and anxiety. So maybe it’s time to turn on some Lassie, The Munsters, The Jetsons…you get the picture.

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. It can transport us back to the past. It also evokes fond memories of a time when things seemed simpler and more comfortable. This emotional response has been recognized as an effective coping mechanism against stress and anxiety.

If you’re struggling to deal with the pressures of everyday life, nostalgia can provide a reminder of the good times.

The comforting nostalgia of rewatching your favorites

One reason old reruns are so effective in reducing stress is the sense of familiarity they offer. When we watch a show we’ve seen before, we know what to expect and can anticipate the storyline. This predictability creates a safe and controlled environment that allows us to relax without any surprises or challenges.

One study even showed that when participants viewed familiar television programs, their levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) decreased significantly.

Our connection to familiar characters is also important to the soothing power of TV nostalgia. Over time, we form attachments to the people we see on screen. We may even feel as if we know them personally. These bonds can provide us with a sense of companionship, which is especially important when we’re feeling lonely or isolated.

When we’re feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, it’s good to find healthy ways to manage the feelings. By providing a comforting escape from reality, old reruns can help us unwind and decompress.

It can even have a meditative effect. The familiarity of the show means we don’t have to pay as much attention. This can help clear our minds, allowing us to focus on the present moment and let go of the worries and concerns that have been troubling us.

So, next time you want to practice self-care without leaving the couch, turn on some reruns of your favorite old show.

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Source: “The Temporal and Focal Dynamics of Volitional Reconsumption: A Phenomenological Investigation of Repeated Hedonic Experiences” — Journal of Consumer Research

WTF Fun Fact 13018 – Can Meditation Be Dangerous?

While we know various types of meditation can promote better mental and physical health, it’s easy to neglect the fact that just about anything can be dangerous if you don’t know how to do it right or aren’t prepared for it. But can meditation be dangerous?

In some cases, yes. But mostly for beginners who quit too early.

How can meditation be dangerous?

Dangerous is a loaded work, however, there are certainly some potential downsides to meditation. For those who are in a dark place or have multiple stressors that they have been repressing, harmful thoughts can sometimes arise during meditation. And if you aren’t skilled at pushing those thoughts away, it can cause you to ruminate on them even more.

According to Psychology Today (cited below), “The most profound interaction you experience in meditation is the interaction with yourself. As part of that, you would get in touch with buried and suppressed emotions. Meditation could trigger waves of anger, fear or jealousy, which had been sitting deep within you, and that would make you feel uncomfortable.”

Of course, having these emotions surface is likely good in the long term if it helps you deal with them and get past them. But if you stop meditating due to discomfort with those feelings, it can leave you worse off. (This is similar to starting and stopping therapy too soon – it can be uncomfortable at first, but that’s usually part of the process.)

The danger of being a beginner

If you’ve ever had a hard time meditating or found that you feel worse afterward, you’re not alone. But we tend to downplay the potential side effects for beginnings since there are so many potential benefits. And typically, the more you keep meditating, the better you get at it.

However, for those who have been through traumatic experiences, being left to meditate on their own with no other emotional support can be very challenging and can lead to poor mental health outcomes. You may need more than just meditation if you’re dealing with trauma.

Meditation beginners also sometimes misunderstand the idea of non-attachment and of letting their feelings go. Most techniques allow troublesome thoughts to come up and encourage you to acknowledge them and then push them away. But sometimes that can lead us to avoid truly dealing with these emotions in a way that will be productive in the long run.

While meditation seems to benefit many people, it’s not as easy as the internet makes it sound. Those dealing with trauma will probably want more personalized guidance and a support system as part of their meditation practice.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Dangers of Meditation” — Psychology Today

WTF Fun Fact 12764 – Mindfulness Meditation Changes the Brain

We need more large-scale studies to make definitive claims, but mindfulness meditation seems to have some cool cognitive benefits. In fact, we can see on brain scans that people who practice mindfulness meditation experience changes in their brains.

Minding your thoughts

Mindfulness practice encourages people to stop and spend time noticing their thoughts and then letting go of the ones that are negative, disorganized, or aren’t serving a positive purpose. It’s designed to help us notice and control our thinking. (As opposed to most meditation practices, which center around emptying the mind of thoughts.)

The part of the brain affected by mindfulness practice is called the amygdala. This is also called the “fight or flight” center because it is linked to fear and emotional responses. Brain scans have shown that mindfulness practice helps shrink the amygdala. While that may sound like a bad thing, an overactive amygdala can be bad for concentration, mood, and emotional regulation.

Regulating the amygdala

However, mindfulness has been shown to help increase the connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. That’s a good thing because those connections help us regulate our emotional responses.

We need our amygdala, we just don’t want it to be hyperactive. And when we practice mindfulness, our bodies get better at regulating those emotional responses.

While some of the effects of mindfulness have been overstated in the press, there is evidence that it can modestly increase physical health and compassion and even reduce bias in addition to negative thought patterns.

The popularity of mindfulness meditation

A U.S. survey found that the percentage of adults practicing some type of mantra-based meditation, mindfulness meditation, or spiritual meditation in the previous year tripled between 2012 and 2017 (from 4.1% to 14.2%). Even among children (4 to 17 years of age), the percentage increased from less than 1% to over 5%. These emotional regulation techniques continue to grow in popularity.

Of course, there’s a lot we still don’t know about mindfulness and meditation in general, and they’re not always the best practices for everyone.

There are also different types of mindfulness meditation to practice, each with slightly different outcomes. For example, body scanning can help reduce negative thoughts. But practices in which participants are asked to observe their thoughts can sometimes lead to more negative thinking, especially among those who have just started practicing the skill and can’t let go of those thoughts easily.

In the end, it may be best for those who are new to mindfulness and observing their thoughts to do so with guidance from a teacher or tool so that they can stay on the right track and get the most out of their mindfulness practices.  WTF fun facts

Source: “10 Things We Know About the Science of Meditation” — Mindful