In Brief

  • Young children are inclined to believe what their parents or other adults tell them in spite of evidence to the contrary, new research finds. Psychologists from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville set up an experiment in which an adult showed 3-year-old children a red cup and a yellow cup, then placed a sticker underneath the overturned red cup. Some of the children were told, incorrectly, that the sticker was beneath the yellow cup; some saw the adult place an arrow above the yellow cup. The children who watched the adults point to the cup with the arrow caught on quickly and learned to look for the sticker beneath the red cup. However, the children who verbally were told where to look almost always followed the speaker’s advice. (In press in Psychological Science.)

  • Young people with severe acne are more likely to consider suicide, have less attachment to their friends, do poorly in school and fail in romantic relationships, according to researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo. The study of 4,000 high school and college students found that girls with self-reported severe acne were twice as likely as their clear-skinned classmates to engage in suicide ideation. Boys with severe acne were three times as likely. The researchers say that acne often appears at a time when young people’s confidence and self-image hinge on their personal appearance and that schools should be aware of these issues. (In press in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.)

  • The brain can be rewired to perform different functions more easily earlier in life, find researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The researchers looked at the brain’s middle temporal complex, which in sighted people is involved in processing visual motion. In blind people, though, that same region can be recruited into sound processing functions. Researchers looked at fMRI scans of sighted people, congenitally blind people and those who became blind later in life as they listened to moving sounds, such as footsteps. They found that the middle temporal complex was only activated in sighted people and those who were born blind, indicating that this rewiring has to take place at a young age. (Current Biology, Vol. 20, No. 20.)

  • Pangs of heartache aside, being in the early stages of romance can numb pain, according to researchers Arthur Aron, PhD, at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Sean Mackey, PhD, at Stanford University. The two recruited 15 college students who were within nine months of starting a relationship and asked them to bring a photo of their loved one, as well as a photo of a comparably attractive acquaintance. The researchers then heated the participants’ palms to an uncomfortable temperature and asked them to look at one of the photos. They repeated the experiment for the second photo. The participants reported no change in pain reduction when looking at the acquaintance, but they were soothed by their beloved. When the researchers looked at fMRI images of their brains during the experiment, they found that the image of their loved one engaged the brain’s reward centers. (Public Library of Science ONE, Vol. 5, No. 10.)

  • Despite poorer overall psychological well-being than control groups, Holocaust survivors’ cognitive functioning and physical health are not significantly affected by their experiences, finds a study by researchers from the Max Stern Academic College of Emek Yezreel and Haifa University, both in Israel, and Leiden University in the Netherlands. The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 71 research articles and databases comprising data from 17,746 Holocaust survivors. They also found that Jewish survivors who live in Israel had better psychological well-being than Jewish people who live elsewhere, suggesting that living in that country might provide added resilience. (Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 136, No. 5.)

  • Graphic depictions of disease-ridden lungs and amputated limbs on U.S. cigarette packages might not have their expected deterring effect, according to University of Missouri psychologist Jamie Arndt, PhD. As a result of the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, such labels will appear on packages in 2012. In his research, Arndt administered questionnaires to college students that prompted them to think about their mortality. Then he offered the students a cigarette. Arndt measured how intensely the students who took a cigarette smoked it. Light smokers appeared to take shorter, less voluminous puffs, whereas heavy smokers took longer, heavier puffs. Arndt suspects that heavy smokers might try to counter the negative mood brought on by thoughts of dying by engaging even more in a pleasurable activity: smoking. (Presented in May at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.)

  • The increase in a mother’s hormones after she gives birth might reshape and increase the size of certain parts of her brain, say researchers from the Yale University School of Medicine. The researchers looked at MRI scans of new mothers’ brains at two to four weeks after giving birth and again at three to four months. They found small but significant increases in gray matter in the hypothalamus, which is involved in maternal motivation; the amygdala, involved in emotion processing; the parietal lobe, involved in sensory integration; and the prefrontal cortex, involved in reasoning and judgment. Expansion in these areas could help moms hone the skills important to motherhood, the researchers suggest. (Behavioral Neuroscience, Vol. 124, No. 5.)

  • Children’s living arrangements are becoming increasingly chaotic and unstable, which is linked to their lower well-being, according to a recent meta-analysis by Susan L. Brown, PhD, at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The number of children growing up with multiple “family living arrangements” is on the rise, she reports, but connecting the dots isn’t as easy as blaming kids’ decreased well-being on their unwed or divorced parents, she says. While it’s true that children born to married parents tend to experience greater stability and well-being, the data indicate that marriage alone isn’t enough to foster well-being, as children born to parents who wed shortly after birth don’t see an uptick in well-being. Brown says this subtlety suggests that a stable household is the primary factor, regardless of marital status. (In press in the Journal of Marriage and Family.)

  • Children whose moms go back to work after the child turns 3 are at no higher risk for behavioral and academic problems than children with stay-at-home moms, find researchers at the University of California, Irvine. In a meta-analysis of 69 studies, they found that in some cases, such as in lower-income families, kids with working moms actually had higher academic and intelligence scores, probably due to the family’s increased income, which generates more resources and decreases financial stress. However, going back to work within the first year of a child’s life can lead to behavioral problems, the data suggest, leading the researchers to call for more flexible maternity leave policies. (Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 136, No. 6.)

  • Female mice with a knocked out oxytocin receptor gene, Oxtr, display normal maternal behavior, yet lose more pups than mice with a functional version of the gene, say researchers from the National Institutes of Health, Kent State University and Kyungpook National University in South Korea. In one experiment, researchers observed that in mice engineered with reduced Oxtr in the forebrain, while there was no noticeable impairment to the licking and grooming behaviors previously correlated with mother mice’s levels of the hormone oxytocin, 40 percent of their offspring died within four days. This effect was only seen in the knockout mice’s first and second litters, though; by the third litter, their pups’ survival rates were equal to mice with a normal version of Oxtr. Further experiments ruled out environmental disturbances during the experiment as the cause, suggesting some as yet unidentified mechanism for the absence of oxytocin leading to pups’ deaths. (Behavioral Neuroscience, Vol. 124, No. 5.)

  • New research backs up the adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, according to researchers from the University at Buffalo of the State University of New York and the University of California, Irvine. The scientists looked at data from a longitudinal study of people’s life histories, mental health and well-being. They found that while people who encountered a lot of adversity in the lives reported worse mental health and well-being, people who fell on a moderate amount of hard times were better off than those who had either lots of or no adversity. A small amount of adversity predicted lower global distress, fewer post-traumatic stress incidents and higher life satisfaction overall. (In press in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.)

  • People with major depression can recognize a sad face with high accuracy but are less able to recognize other emotions, finds a new study. Researchers recruited 44 men and women diagnosed with major depressive disorder and 44 healthy controls and had them assess 200 pictures of faces displaying a range of emotions. The depressed people outperformed the controls when identifying sad faces but were comparatively less able than to recognize other emotions, such as harshness and surprise. The people with depression were also less able to recognize more subtle facial expressions across the range of emotions, indicating that depression might impair emotional recognition. (In press in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.)

  • Genetics might account for why some people can get by on a few hours of sleep that would leave others in a fog all day, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Scientists looked at people with the gene variant DQB1*0602, which is associated with a higher risk for narcolepsy. In the study, 37 people with the gene variant who weren’t diagnosed with a sleeping disorder, along with 92 healthy controls, underwent partial sleep deprivation. Those with the gene variant were sleepier and more fatigued the next day compared with the controls and spent less time in deep sleep during their short slumbers. The finding suggests that those with the gene might be less suited to work the night shift or travel frequently across time zones, researchers say. (Neurology, Vol. 75, No. 16.)

—M. Price