2013 top ten brain science studies

Neuroscience gives us fascinating insights into how our brains work and what incredibly flexible and miraculous, but also mysterious organs they are. An article in Forbes Magazine outlines the 2013 top ten brain science studies, with some of them having practical implications for our everyday lives. We outline the article here.


1. The brain takes toxins out of it while we sleep
During daytime, a lot of neurotoxins that are connected to diseases like Alzheimer’s assemble in our brain. Researchers now have found that while we sleep, so-called “hidden caves” in our brain open up and neurotoxins are flushed out by cerebrospinal fluid, a fluid found in the brain and spine. This study implies that our brain needs sleep to get rid of the waste it assembles during the daytime. Thus, lack of sleep is likely to be a brain killer.
The original article was published in the journal Science.


2. In our brain, we are closely connected to our friends
When we see that our friends are exposed to physical pain, the regions in our brain fire that are activated when we experience physical pain ourselves. This is not the case when we see strangers exposed to physical pain. This literally means that our loved ones become a part of ourselves.
The original article was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.


3. We can see even though we might not realise it
Many regions in the brain seem to be involved in vision. There is a primary area, the visual cortex, which enables us to see the way we are used to. Sometimes this area is destroyed so that people are unable to see although their eyes and optic nerves are fully functional. This is called cerebral blindness. Researchers found that in a patient with cortical blindness, other regions in the brain can still detect another person’s gaze. What implications this has cannot be said at the moment, but it shows us once more how complex the brain is and maybe the insight can one day be used for helping people with cerebral blindness and maybe even other impairments of vision get along better in our vision-oriented world.
The original article was published in the journal Neuroscience.


4. Stress is related to cancer
There is a lot of research out there linking stress to cancer, but the findings are controversial. Now a study found stress to accelerate prostate cancer and make it less responsive to cancer drugs. Researchers assume that the stress hormone epinephrine turns off the cell death programme that would otherwise prevent cancer cells from growing.
The original study was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.


5. Extravert or introvert? Maybe both.
A well-studied personality trait is extraversion-introversion, with the extravert being outgoing, sociable, and sensation seeking, while the introvert is rather quiet, conscientious, and careful. Often the notion is that you are either one or the other, but not both. Recent research now found that there is indeed something in between, called ambiverts, who can switch between the two extremes depending on the needs of the situation. The study found ambiverts to be the best salespersons because they are on the one hand outgoing and convincing enough to close the deal and on the other hand able to listen to their clients. By the way, the study also found introverts to be just as good salespersons as extraverts.
The original study was published in the journal Psychological Science.


6. Growing a mini-brain from stem cells
Researchers were able to grow a mini brains that have distinct regions from stem cells. They did so by first nourishing the stem cells by certain nutrients and then putting the tissue they had grown into a bioreactor containing oxygen and nutrients. The mini-brains that had been created this way contained firing neurons and brain regions like the retina and cerebral cortex. This is still very basic research, but maybe this can one day cure heal brain diseases or injuries.
There is an article on this study on the Reuters homepage.


7. Exercise benefits the brain
There is evidence that exercise helps grow new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, the brain region associated with learning and memory, and particularly endurance exercise seems to foster neuron growth here. A recent study now taps into the mechanisms behind this effect and shows that exercise boosts the release of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BNDF) via a protein. BNDF in turn stimulates the growth of neurons and preserves them.
The original article was published in the journal Cell Metabolism.


8. Enhancing our self-control
Researchers found that the region in our brain that is associated with self-control, the prefrontal cortex, can be stimulated by weak electrical stimulation. When stimulated in this way, study participants were better able to control themselves. The findings might help cure diseases like Tourette Syndrome, but maybe it can eventually also help us in understanding how we can enhance our self-control when we are healthy, but slightly undisciplined persons.
The original study was published in the journal Neuroscience.


9. Measuring consciousness
A topic that is constantly under discussion and always on the media is the question when someone can be declared dead. Often in patients who have suffered severe brain injury this is difficult to tell. A new method now seems to be able to detect whether there is still consciousness in the brain that could predict the patient’s recovery. The procedure entails three steps: first, the brain is exposed to a magnetic pulse that is supposed to wake it up. Then brain wave activity as a response to the pulse is measured and finally the activity is further analysed using a certain formula that can classify the complexity of the brain activity. The tool is designed to shed light on the question whether or not a patient will recover from the injuries.
The original study was published in the journal Science.


10. Coffee reduces the risk of suicide
A meta-analysis of over 200,000 people found caffeine to reduce the risk of suicide. Two to four cups of coffee seemed to be enough for this. The mechanism behind this seems to be the fact that caffeine is similar to a chemical in the brain, adenosine, that blocks receptors in the nervous system that receive signals for decreasing energy expenditure. Thus, caffeine seems to prevent the reduction of energy and stimulate the brain.
The original article was published in The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry.
The full article is available on the Forbes Magazine website.


What sort of office is beneficial for performance?

What kind of office makes us most creative, enhances productivity, creates a great working atmosphere and a sense of cohesion amongst employees? For a long time, it has been thought that an open environment would be ideal because it enhances communication and idea flow. However, recent research questions this notion.


An article in the New Yorker summarises research on open office environments and comes to a clear conclusion: this kind of setting enhances neither creativity nor productivity. For example, researchers followed up on a transition from a classical office to an open environment and found job performance, satisfaction with physical environment, and interpersonal relationships to deteriorate, while stress level rose. Moreover, a meta-analysis of over a hundred studies on open environments revealed that this setting is harmful for attention span, productivity, creative thinking, and job satisfaction. Finally, one study also found people who work in an open environment to be on sick leave more often than people working in smaller offices.

The results found are in line with research on what is beneficial for concentration, performance and team cohesion. For example, one big issue with open space offices is noise, which in turn is known to have a negative impact on concentration. Even worse, it is harmful for health because it raises the level of stress hormones. Furthermore, a sense of privacy is related to job performance, while feeling in control of your environment is beneficial for team cohesion and satisfaction. This sense of control includes for example adjusting temperature and lighting in a room, but also the way in which meetings are conducted.

There also seems to be an effect of age: younger individuals do not seem to be as affected by the detrimental effects of an open environment as older ones are. This might be due to the fact that they are more used to things like multi-tasking and dealing with distraction. However, their work performance is also affected by working in an open environment: those who are good at multi-tasking (i.e. those who are usually the ones that deal well with an open space office) are more susceptible to distractions than those who are not.

Generally, interruptions seem to be very detrimental to concentration and performance. We reported on this before. In consequence, for getting things done, it is important to be able to stick with them for elongated periods of time. The risk of being interrupted is greater in an open space office than in smaller ones.

Thus, to sum up the research mentioned: open space offices are detrimental for performance, team cohesion, and health and therefore whenever there is the choice, smaller offices should be preferred.

If I was rich…

If you were a rich person, would you behave differently from the way you behave now? How would you treat others around you? By contrast, what would change if you were poor? Not much, you think? Social psychologists are likely to disagree based on findings from a number of studies – they say your financial situation has a huge impact on your behaviour towards others.

Social psychologist Paul K. Piff from University of California at Berkeley was interested in the question how the experience of being a privileged player in a rigged game changes the way that people think about themselves and regard the other player. He conducted an experiment with 100 pairs of players in which he let them play the game of Monopoly. One of them was assigned a rich and the other a poor person’s role – randomly by flipping a coin. Dr. Piff was interested to see how their behaviour would change. The rich player began to move around the board louder and showed more signs of dominance while becoming ruder and less sensitive towards the other player. Finally, they became more demonstrative of their success and even ate more of the snack provided than the poor players. When rich players reflected upon why they had inevitably won this rigged game afterwards, they talked about what they had done to earn their success of the game. They ignored the features of the situation like the flipped coin that put them into the situation.

For some reason, blogger does not allow us to embed the TED Talk today, therefore we give you the link to Paul Piff’s TED Talk here: Paul Piff: Does money make you mean?
Being wealthy seems to considerably change people’s behaviour. Other experiments showed that richer people are less likely to share money they are given by the experimenter with a stranger and more likely to cheat in a game for winning a prize. Participants who were rich took two times as much candy from a jar that had been declared to be exclusively reserved for kids. Being wealthy seems to lead to more feelings of entitlement and higher self-interest, which may lead to outcomes like rule-breaking e.g. in traffic or unethical behaviour in work contexts.

However, this does not mean that rich people are bad people. Rather, it is more evidence for the fact that it is not only personality that determines our behaviour, but just as much the situations we are in. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo showed this in a very imposing manner in his famous Stanford prison experiment: people like you and me were randomly assigned either the role of a prisoner or of a guard. Within no time, the guards showed such brutal behaviour that the experiment needed to be stopped. Thus, apparently it does not require much for turning from a normal into an “evil” person. He identifies certain critical aspects of a situation that make counterproductive work behaviours more likely to appear: (1) Distraction: the individual is faced with many temptations; (2) Ambiguity: there are no clear rules; (3) Boredom: there is little variety; (4) Indifference: there is no cooperation; (5) Opportunism: the individual does not have his or her own opinions; (6) Superficiality: the individual does not think through the situation, behaviour and consequences.

On the other hand, there are interindividual differences in how likely people are to fall for the temptations of a situation and there are attributes that determine an individual’s susceptibility to the above mentioned critical aspects of situations (Zimbardo, 2007). These attributes can be summarized in two categories: impulse control and ethical awareness.

We could transfer this whole idea back to the context of work and ask: what makes an employee display unethical or risky behaviours? Based on Prof. Zimbardo’s findings, we can assess to what extent employees are prone to showing such behaviours in certain situations. This is e.g. what cut-e’s questionnaire squares does. It measures how likely someone is to fall for the cues of certain situations and show risky or unethical behaviour.

The good news about these findings is: the mechanism also works the other way round. For example, Paul Piffs points out that small psychological interventions can restore egalitarianism and empathy. Stressing values like cooperation, community, and compassion, and making rich people aware of the needs of others around them can considerably change their behaviour. Similarly, one can assume that a lot of counterproductive work behaviours can be changed by simply making people aware of the issues, of the consequences of their behaviour and of others’ needs.

Lectures from the world’s top universities for everyone?

The future of learning is a topic we have come across quite a few times during this year. Some people on this planet have the vision that education could be available and affordable for anyone at any stage in life. Here is one of them: How about taking the best courses from the best instructors at the best universities for people all around the world… for free?


The starting point for computer science professor Daphne Koller from Stanford University was the fact that on the one hand going to university opens the door to a world of opportunities, while on the other hand not everyone can attend university. There are not enough spots for all people at universities and costs of higher education are unaffordable for many. She wanted to change this and started Coursera. Its goal is having the best courses from the best instructors at the best universities for people all around the world for free.



What makes the courses on Coursera different from others? They start on a given day. Students watch videos and complete homework assignments every week for a real grade with a real deadline. In the end they receive a certificate. Online learning offers a lot of opportunities such as getting away from 60 minutes lectures and breaking the content into small and coherent chunks, which allows for personalised learning. This also includes working with the material and receiving feedback.


Grades for the many students enrolled in the courses can be provided by algorithms in some cases. Where it is not possible, peer grading can be used, and research shows that peer grades are highly correlated with teacher grades. Furthermore, in this kind of format, collaboration is also possible. There are forums or physical or virtual study groups in which students can help each other. Finally, the format is also great for studying learning because every click, every action and every output by students is recorded and can be studied. Thus, Coursera seems to make it possible for everyone around the world who has a computer and internet access to enroll in courses and study at their own pace and with their own timing.


We only just completed a twelve week Coursera course and found it to be a very positive thing. There were several five to twenty minutes lectures that one needed to watch during the week and there was an assignment that one needed to complete by the end of the week. There was a mid-term and a final exam. And there were many questions and even more helpful answers in the forum. We did not try out a study group. Our résumé is: it was a great course, we learned a lot, and we will definitely do it again.

Mentor or Coach: that is the question

Some of our readers might already have worked with a mentor or coach. Others might be thinking about working with one. The question is: mentor or coach?


On the website HR Pulse, there is some practical advice on this question. Leadership expert Keith Coats says it depends on what you want to learn. If it is a practical skill or specific behaviour, then it will make sense to hire a coach. On the other hand, if you are looking for someone who will provide you with a perspective, a mentor is the appropriate person to look for. He also points out that in the end, we need both. Finally, his key message is that we should never stop learning, even when we are senior leaders.

Coaching, by the way, can have surprising effects. Recently there was a study published by Filip Lievens from Ghent University and his colleagues that investigated the impact of coaching on a situational judgment test (SJT). These tests confronts the test taker with a realistic scenario, e.g. a salesperson with an angry customer, and the task is to find the appropriate response in the given situation. These tests are becoming increasingly popular in personnel selection and are used rather frequently. For example, a Belgian medical school uses one in their admission process. And this is where Filip Lievens and his colleagues conducted their experiment. They compared two groups of candidates who had previously failed in the admission test. One group received coaching, whereas the other did not. It turned out that those who had received coaching improved quite a bit compared to the uncoached group – about half a standard deviation in their scores! This of course raises the question what the coaching really improved – the underlying ability or just the ability to deal with the test. But that is a question that needs to be answered in another study.

The original study was published in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment and there is an outline of it on the BPS Occupational Digest Blog.

This is just one example. But to sum this up: coaching and mentoring is very likely something that all of us can profit from, no matter what stage in our career we are at. And maybe the answer to the question in the headline is: both coaching AND mentoring. And maybe a coach or mentor is not necessary someone we hire and pay. Maybe it is someone we just choose to learn from – colleagues, leaders, maybe even kids…

Charismatic leaders = creative, engaged employees?

What kind of leadership style makes employees creative and engaged? A lot of research points to the fact that a leader who is charismatic, inspiring, intellectually stimulating, and attentive towards followers do. However, such a leadership style might not be beneficial for all employees.


In today’s fast moving, complex economic environment, it is important for companies that many of their employees show behaviour that goes beyond what is written down in their work contracts. Employees have to be creative in the sense that they generate new, useful products, procedures, or services. They also have to show what is called “Organisational Citizenship Behaviour” (OCB), or behaviours supporting the social and psychological environment in an organisation. Therefore, companies are highly interested in learning what kind of leadership style is beneficial for creativity and OCB. So far, research has shown that the so-called transformational leadership style is related to the desirable outcome. A transformational leader is charismatic (acts in admirable ways), inspiring (expresses an attractive vision), intellectually stimulating (challenges the status quo), and considerate (mentors or coaches followers).


However, in their article, Phillip L Gilmore from George Mason University in Virginia and his colleagues found this view to be too simplistic. They took a closer look at the mechanism that links transformational leadership to creativity and OCB: positive affect. Transformational leadership behaviours increase positive affect in followers, which in turn is related to creativity and OCB. Therefore, they hypothesised that transformational leadership behaviours would only increase creativity and OCB in employees who are low in positive affect.


In their study, they had 212 employees of a Chinese company rate their positive affectivity and their leaders’ leadership style, while the respective employees’ leaders had to rate their employees’ creativity and OCB. The study showed that in fact transformational leadership was only beneficial for creativity and OCB in employees who were low on positive affect, where it had no impact on creativity and OCB in employees who were high on positive affect. Thus, the equation “Charismatic leaders = creative, engaged employees” holds true, but only for employees who are low on positive affect.


The original article was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. There is an outline of the study on the BPS Occupational Digest blog.


As a consequence, the authors suggest that transformational leaders turn to those followers who are low on energy, sluggish, and melancholic because for them, the leadership style really makes a difference. However, this may not always be easy because research also found transformational leaders to tend to be extraverted and thus higher on positive affect by nature. Therefore, they may prefer to turn their attention to those who are alike (those who are already high on positive affect and energy) instead of those who would need their attention. Thus, leaders should consider turning their attention to those who do not share their own mindset. This might be more effortful and not come as natural, but highly beneficial.


Effektiv rekrytering inom detaljhandeln

Under 2013 har Elgiganten på bred front implementerat cut-e‘s tester till sin butiksrekrytering. Med 50 000 sökanden har arbetspsykologiska test stor potential att både effektivisera och öka kvaliteten i rekryteringsprocersserna. En av de mest centrala tjänsterna är butikssäljare. I början av samarbetet samlade cut-e in data kring personlighetsdimensioner, begåvning/färdighet och försäljningsresultat för flera hundra befintliga butikssäljare, både i Sverige och internationellt. Analysen visade på tydliga samband som ligger till grund för skräddarsydda rapporter. Varuhuscheferna använder dem i sitt rekryteringsarbete för att veta vilka kandidater som har rätt personliga egenskaper för framgångsrik försäljning – och vilka som saknar dem.

I förra veckan höll cut-e ett fullsatt fullsatt frukostseminarium på Stockholm Waterfront Congress Centre tillsammans med Elgiganten. Under seminariet presenterades hur arbetet mellan Elgiganten och cut-e har gått till. Du som missade seminariet eller vill veta mer kan ladda ner case studyn här.

Tack till alla gamla och nya kontakter och kunder som deltog i seminariet.

Pssst… du har väl inte missat cut-e’s nyhetsbrev? Maila till info.sweden@cut-e.com om du vill ta del av vårt nyhetsbrev som innehåller nyheter, inbjudan till event och mycket mer!

How everyday experiences shape personality

Some time ago, we asked the question what turns someone into a hero or a villain and we learned that situations matter and that there is nothing like a “good” or “bad” personality per se. These results can be generalised to the question: how stable is our personality? It seems that situations we experience at work on one day have quite an impact on how we describe ourselves the next day.


Timothy A. Judge from University of Notre Dame and University College LondonLauren S. Simon from Portland State UniversityCharlice Hurst from Western University, and Ken Kelley from University of Notre Dame studied personality and everyday experiences of 122 employees over a period of two weeks (ten working days). They had participants record their daily experiences at work and rate themselves on instruments assessing the Big Five personality traits (extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience) at the end of each day.
The key findings were:


  • Individuals who displayed more citizenship behaviour (behaviours such as helping others or doing things that are not required but help the organisation) on one day described themselves as more extraverted, agreeable, and open the next day. I
  • Interpersonal conflict and neuroticism seemed to enforce each other, meaning that when someone experienced conflict on one day, scores on neuroticism were likely to be higher on the next day, but also when someone described him- or herself as neurotic one day, he or she was more likely to experience conflict the subsequent day.
  • Goal setting motivation enforced conscientiousness on the following day, but also conscientiousness strengthened goal setting motivation on the subsequent day.
  • Intrinsic motivation on one day positively predicted conscientiousness and openness on the following day, with openness and intrinsic motivation also being in a mutual relationship.
  • Conflicts in one day negatively affected openness and agreeableness on the next day in individuals that scored high on neuroticism. However, this was not the case for emotionally stable individuals.


The original article was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. There is an outline of the study on the BPS Occupational Digest blog.


The results do not mean that there is nothing stable in our personality. Rather, they imply that personality varies around a kind of certain set point. For some people, e.g. people scoring higher on neuroticism, this variation may be greater than for others. The research presented here, as the BPS Research Digest puts it, “helps us better understand virtuous cycles, where one good turn produces the state that can lead to another, and keeps us aware of the power of dynamics in a working environment”.



Please do because it is quite likely to be good for you. Researchers connect smiling to success and well-being, longevity, health, and even positive perception by others.

In a TED Talk, speaker, writer and entrepreneur Ron Gutman gives an overview of research around the benefits of smiling.
In a 30 year longitudinal study researchers predicted how fulfilling and long-lasting subjects’ marriages would be, what scores they would have in standardised tests of well-being and how inspiring they would be to others from their smiles in a college yearbook. In another study, the span of a smile predicted longevity – the bigger the smile, the longer subjects’ lives.

Smiling seems to be inborn: babies are born smiling and smile a lot while sleeping and also while being awake. It seems to be universal to cultures and people across all cultures are able to distinguish a true from a fake smile. The act of smiling already makes us feel better and stimulates our reward system in the brain in such a way that even chocolate is not able to.

Smiling even can make us healthier. It can reduce the level of stress hormones and raise the level of mood enhancing hormones. Furthermore, it can reduce blood pressure. Finally, it can also make us look more likeable, but also more competent.

How come smiling has such a positive impact on our health, well-being and success in life? Smiling is an indicator that the individual is in a positive emotional state. Thus, maybe the research on positive emotions can explain many of the findings. For example, we know that a certain relation of positive to negative emotions (3:1) makes us flourishThere is also research indicating that happiness makes us successful in building our careers. And, finally, we know that well-being is related to health and longevity.

Thus, do what Ron Gutman suggests at the end of his talk: SMILE :-)

Are we getting smarter?

Many of our readers may be familiar with the Flynn effect, or the massive increase in IQ test performance that has been measured during the last 80 years. Compared to people who lived in the early 1900s, we would be highly gifted, whereas they, compared to us, would be classified as mentally retarded. What is the reason for this gain in IQ test performance? Are we really getting smarter?

James R. Flynn, who has been studying this effect intensely, gives some ideas on what the reasons for the massive change in IQ test performance are: our minds have changed from dealing with a very concrete world to dealing with increasingly complex and abstract information.

Thus, his key message is that today’s world faces us with completely different challenges than it did in the early 20th century. Sometimes we deal with these by simply using improved aides. For example, when firing a gun, people have become better, but not so much because their ability to meet a target has improved, but because they are using better guns. Thus, increases in performance can very well result from using other, better instruments.

However, as already mentioned above, what has definitely changed in the last 80 years is the content we are dealing with. In the early 20th century, the Russian neurologist Alexander Luria studied people in rural Russia and found that they were unable to hypothesise and to think in abstract categories. However, today, this is what we deal with all the time: classification, using logic on abstractions, taking the hypothetical seriously. At school and at university, we are trained to classify objects, to use logic on abstractions, and to take the hypothetical seriously. Furthermore, today, many of us execute highly complex jobs that are cognitively demanding, and we can only meet the requirements of these jobs if we are cognitively highly flexible. Thus, today, we take the abstract and hypothetical seriously and look for logical connections between objects. In Jim Flynn’s opinion, these are the major reasons for the massive gains in IQ test performance that have been measured across the last 80 years.

In line with this is the finding that the gains have been greatest in certain areas: classification and using logic and abstractions. However, we have not make progress on all fronts. Young people nowadays do not read history or literature. This is, in Jim Flynn’s opinion, a dangerous tendency. How do young people want to make politics when they have no idea about it and about history? This brings us back to the question we discussed in a previous post: where lies the future of learning? How can we make young people learn in a way that they can deal with our complex world? Sugata Mitra would say: make them curious, ask them questions, and then let them explore themselves!