TIME the brain

Why Your Brain Thinks This Picture Shows a Giant, Martian Crab Monster

nasa crab monster mars
NASA Is this a terrifying crab monster or just a pile of rocks?

Blame 'pareidolia' - a phenomenon that makes us see all kinds of things

Think you’re savvy in the ways of social media? OK, which of the following two headlines would be likelier to get your attention?

a) Mars Rover Team Studies Geological Zone With High Silica Content

b) Mysterious Crab Monster Found on Mars!

If you said a), you can probably forget about that job application you sent to Facebook. It’s the crab monster news that, of course, has set social media on fire in the past day, with a real-life, wholly gross image sent back by the Mars Curiosity rover that — when seen up close — does appear to show some sort of giant crab lurking in a cave.

But here’s the less clickable part of that news: It’s definitely not a giant crab lurking in a cave. In fact, it’s just one more example of the sometimes whimsical, always spooky phenomenon known as pareidolia, or the tendency of the brain to see familiar shapes—especially faces—emerging from random patterns.

Pareidolia is what’s behind J.C. Penney’s disastrously ill-designed Adolf Hitler teapot, which was not the marketing name the Penney folks assigned to it, but is the only way the unfortunate product will ever be known thanks to the mustache, bangs and upthrust arm it calls to mind. It’s also the reason we see faces in the random patterns of marble tiles or burned toast, or in the more orderly design of a handbag with two side-by-side loops where the handle is attached and a horizontal zipper below, forming a mouth and a pair of eyes.

The pareidolia phenomenon is actually a deeply rooted one, something that helps infants focus on faces early and also allowed humans in the wild to spot danger easily—picking a potentially menacing human or animal peering out from a backdrop of leaves or scrub. Yes, more often than not it’s a false alarm, but better to overreact fifty times than under-react even once.

A 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to pinpoint the spot in the brain in which pareidolia plays out, and determined that it’s actually in two spots called the left and right fusiform gyrus. It is the left that reacts first to a possible face in a background patten, sending out a What’s this? signal to the right. The right then makes the call—Is this really a face?—and for safety’s sake, it tends to err on the side of yes. The left then uses those few processing microseconds to consider the context of the image, and often as not will sound the all-clear. The right, however, is sometimes not persuaded, and continues to process the image as a face—helping us avoid danger, perhaps, but scaring us more than we need to be too.

This is not the first time something suspicious on Mars got Earthlings worked up. In 1976, the Viking 1 orbiter discovered what for all the world appeared to be a face staring up from the Martian terrain. Even in that pre-Internet era, the image went the 1970s equivalent of viral, and later figured significantly in the 2000 Brian de Palma movie, Mission to Mars. By then, however, the face had already been unmasked, with a subsequent flyover by the Mars Global Surveyor in 1998 showing it merely to be the natural landform it was—and one that had significantly eroded away at that. A subsequent image from 2001 showed even more natural erasure of the original shape.

In fairness to the folks freaked out by the current image, a crab is not a face and the brain has to work a little harder to force that image out of the background shapes, but it does the job all the same—just as it will interpret a branch in the underbrush as a snake or a shadow in the closet as a monster. Your pattern recognition regions are not the smartest part of your brain, but they’re not designed to be. They only have to be right once, and on the offchance you ever do run across a bear in the woods or a crab monster on Mars, you’ll have your fusiform gyri to thank for keeping you alive.

TIME Research

Scientists Now Know Why People Scream

scream
Hans Neleman / Getty Images

Your brain processes shrieks differently from speech, finds a new study

A baby wails upon an airplane’s liftoff, a person shrieks when he stumbles upon something shocking, a kid throws a tantrum because she wants to get her way—people scream in reaction to all kinds of situations.

But exactly why we scream has remained a mystery. Now, new research published in the journal Current Biology suggests that hearing a scream may activate the brain’s fear circuitry, acting as a cautionary signal.

Scream science is a new area of study, so David Poeppel, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, and his co-authors collected an array of screams from YouTube, films and 19 volunteer screamers who screamed in a lab sound booth. (This last collection method, by the way, was a highlight for Poeppel, who said he found listening to and judging screams an amusing break from the monotony of lab work.)

The researchers first measured the sound properties of screams versus normal conversation. They measured the scream’s volume and looked at how volunteers responded behaviorally to screams. They then looked at brain images of people listening to screams and saw something they found fascinating—screams weren’t being interpreted by the brain the way normal sounds were.

Normally, your brain takes a sound you hear and delivers it to a section of your brain dedicated to making sense of these sounds: What is the gender of the speaker? Their age? Their tone?

Screams, however, don’t seem to follow that route. Instead, the team discovered that screams are sent from the ear to the amygdala, the brain’s fear processing warehouse, says Poeppel.

“In brain imaging parts of the experiment, screams activate the fear circuitry of the brain,” he says. “The amygdala is a nucleus in the brain especially sensitive to information about fear.” That means screams are inherently considered not just sound but a trigger for heightened awareness.

From these screams, Poeppel and his team mapped “roughness,” an acoustic description for how fast a sound changes in loudness. While normal speech modulates between 4 and 5 Hz in sound variation, screams spike between 30 and 150 Hz. The higher the sound variation, the more terrifying the scream is perceived.

Poeppel and his team had volunteers listen to different alarm sounds and found people responded to alarms with similar variations: The more the alarms varied at higher rates, the more terrifying they were judged to be.

That huge variation in scream roughness is a clue to how our brains process danger sounds, Poeppel says. Screaming serves not only to convey danger but also to induce fear in the listener and heighten awareness for both screamer and listener to respond to their environment.

TIME psychology

The Most Effective Way To Change Your Behavior and Improve Your Life

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Changing your environment is the easiest and most powerful way to change your behavior.

Altering the things in your home and your office and carefully picking the people you spend time with will bring you greater and more effortless results than anything else.

But you’re an objective, self-determined, independent, unique snowflake, you say? No, you’re not.

The reason you’re often so good a predicting other people’s behavior and so bad at predicting your own is because when forecasting other people’s actions you always take context into consideration. With yourself, you assume you’re objective.

We are often lazy creatures of habit, strongly influenced by the world around us. We don’t even use our leisure time to do what we really enjoy, we do what’s easiest. And without a prod we don’t do the ethical thing, we do what’s convenient.

But the predictability of our reliance on context points to a remarkably effective method for improving one’s life:

Manipulate your environment so as to make what you should do easy and what you shouldn’t do hard.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Family

‘Helicopter Parenting’ Hurts Kids Regardless of Love or Support, Study Says

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Sorry, Tiger Moms

So-called “helicopter parenting” is detrimental to children no matter how loving the parents might be, a new study by professors at Brigham Young University (BYU) finds.

The study, a follow up to 2012 research that suggested children of such controlling parents are less engaged in the classroom, surveyed 483 students from four American universities on their parents’ behavior and their own self-esteem and academics, Science Daily reports. This time, researchers explored whether characteristics such as support and warmth might neutralize the negative effects of helicopter parenting. Not only did the study conclude that they do not, but it also suggested that lack of warmth can take the situation from bad to worse, amplifying low self-esteem and high-risk behaviors such as binge drinking.

For the purposes of the study, researchers defined “helicopter parenting” as including such over-involved habits such as solving children’s problems and making important decisions for them, while warmth was measured in terms of availability to talk and spending quality time.

The study contradicts popular parenting philosophies, such as the one espoused in the 2011 bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

“From our past work, we thought there might be something positive about helicopter parenting under certain conditions, but we’re just not finding it,” study author Larry Nelson told Science Daily. Instead, while the data indicated that warmth reduced the negative effects of controlling parenting, it did not nullify them completely. “Overall, stepping in and doing for a child what the child developmentally should be doing for him or herself, is negative,” Nelson said.

[Science Daily]

TIME Research

The New Science of How to Quit Smoking

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Two studies shed light on promising new ways to make kicking the habit easier, using both biology and behavior

Studies show that most smokers want to quit. So why are some people more successful at cutting out nicotine than others? The latest studies looking at the brains and behavior of smokers may provide some explanations.

Some people may be hardwired to have an easier time giving up their cigarettes, suggests one new trial described in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology. It turns out that some smokers start out with a particularly rich network of brain neurons in an area called the insula, which regulates cravings and urges and communicates cues: like seeing a cigarette or smelling tobacco smoke, then wanting to light up. Joseph McClernon, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, ran MRI scans of 85 smokers who puffed more than 10 cigarettes a day. The smokers were then randomly assigned to continue smoking their brand or to smoke low-nicotine cigarettes, along with nicotine replacement therapy, for 30 days. All of the people in the study were then told to stop smoking and given nicotine replacement for 10 weeks.

MORE The Best Way to Quit Smoking Isn’t E-Cigs

Those who relapsed during that time tended to have lower activity in the insula, particularly in the connections between the insula and other motor areas that translate cravings into action, while those who successfully kicked the habit showed more robust activity in this brain region. The pattern remained strong despite how many cigarettes the smokers smoked.

“We’ve known for a while that some people seem to be able to quit and other people can’t,” says McClernon. “This gives us a better sense of what neural mechanisms might underlie those differences.”

The results suggest that it might be possible to identify people who may have a harder time quitting—a quick MRI scan of their brains would reveal how much activity they have in their insula—and provide them with more support in their attempts to quit. “Some smokers might benefit from more intensive, longer duration or even different types of interventions to stop smoking,” says McClernon. “They might need a higher, different level of care to help them make it through.”

But how much this system can be manipulated to help smokers quit isn’t clear yet. Previous studies show how potentially complicated the insula’s connections may be—smoking patients who have strokes and damage to the insula suddenly lose their desire to smoke and quit almost cold turkey. McClernon believes that the richer connections may not only promote interactions between cravings and behavior, but also enhance the connections that can inhibit or suppress those urges as well. Having a more intense communication in the insula may help strengthen the ability to quiet urges and inhibit the desire to smoke, despite cues and the urge to light up.

MORE Taking Medication May Make It Easier to Quit Smoking

But even if you’re not blessed with a brain that’s wired to make quitting easy, you still have options. In another study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists studied one of the oldest and most reliable ways to motivate people: money. In that trial, Dr. Scott Halpern from the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues assigned 2,538 employees of CVS Caremark to one of five different smoking cessation programs. All received free access to nicotine replacement and behavioral therapy, and some were also assigned to an individual reward program in which they could earn up to $800 if they remained abstinent at six months. Another group was assigned another individual deposit program which was similar, except they had to pay $150 to participate, which they got back if they remained abstinent. Others were assigned to group versions of the reward and deposit programs so that what they received depended on how many in their group quit successfully.

Not shockingly, more people who were assigned to the reward program (90%) agreed to participate than people who were assigned to the deposit strategy (14%), likely because most people weren’t wiling to put their own money on the line. But when Halpern looked more closely at those who did enroll, the smokers in the deposit programs were twice as likely to be abstinent at six months than those in the reward group and five times as likely to be smoke-free than those who received only free counseling and nicotine replacement.

MORE Paying People Could Help Them Quit Smoking

That’s not entirely surprising, says Halpern, since having some of their own money at risk provided more motivation for the smokers to quit. When it comes to incentivizing smoking cessation, “adding a bit of stick is better than having just a pure carrot,” he says.

Finding the perfect balance of stick and carrot, however, may be more challenging. Halpern believes that from the perspective of an employer, insurer or government, offering even higher rewards than the $800 in the study and lowering the deposit slightly might still provide benefits to all parties. Smokers cost an average of $4,000 to $6,000 more each year in health services than non-smokers, he says, so offering even as much as $5,000 can still result in cost savings for employers, many of whom are now dangling financial incentives in front of their smoking employees to motivate them to quit.

How the financial carrot is proffered is also important, says Halpern. Now, most employers or insurers reward quitting in more hidden ways, with bonuses in direct deposit accounts or with lower premiums. While helpful, these aren’t as tangible to people, and humans respond better to instant gratification. “They’re rewarding people in ways that are essentially blind to the way human psychology works,” he says. “The fact that the benefits occur in the future make them a whole lot less influential than if people were handed money more quickly. Our work suggests that in addition to thinking about the size of the incentive, it’s fundamentally important to think about how to deliver that money.”

Another factor that can make financial incentives more powerful is to make the experience more enjoyable, either by introducing some competition in a group setting or encouraging smokers along the way. In the study, smokers in the group programs were not any more successful than those in the individual regimes, but that may be because the employees didn’t know each other. Grouping colleagues in the same office might have more of an effect, says Halpern. Either way, he says, incorporating such incentives to help more people quit smoking is “really a win-win.”

Read next: The Best Way to Quit Smoking Isn’t E-Cigs

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TIME medicine

There Could Soon Be a Pill to Make Us More Compassionate

How brain chemistry influences compassion

Biology may have a lot to do with our behavior, especially in social situations. And that means our social interactions could be manipulated by a pill.

That’s what a new study, published in the journal Current Biology, suggests. A group led by researchers at University of California Berkeley and University of California San Francisco shows that by manipulating a brain chemical, people can become more compassionate and act in prosocial ways to equalize differences.

In the study, 35 men and women visited the labs two times; each time they were randomly given a pill that keeps levels of dopamine, which is involved in reward and satisfaction, or a placebo. Neither the participants nor the scientists knew which pills were given when. The volunteers were then asked to divide money between themselves and a strangers.

When the researchers analyzed the results, they found that when the people were given the dopamine drug, they were more likely to share the money equitably compared to when they took the placebo.

The results certainly aren’t the answer to promoting more compassion in society, but they do hint that behaviors like social interaction might be affected by changing basic biological systems in the brain. “We have taken an important step toward learning how our aversion to inequity is influenced by our brain chemistry,” Ignacio Sáez, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, said in a statement. “Studies in the past decade have shed light on the neural circuits that govern how we behave in social situations. What we show here is one brain ‘switch’ we can affect.”

Read next: 14 Emotional Dispatches From Key Ebola Fighters

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TIME behavior

How Religion Can Move Us to Do Terrible Things

Remembrance: Tributes mounted outside the Charlie Hebdo office after the Jan. 11 unity parade in Paris
Christopher Furlong; 2015 Getty Images Remembrance: Tributes mounted outside the Charlie Hebdo office after the Jan. 11 unity parade in Paris

Faith is supposed to be inclusive, but flip it on its head and terrible things result

Anyone who has ever played on a team knows the thrill of rooting for your own side’s success while rejoicing at your opponents’ losses. Now ratchet up that gratifying feeling with two other ingredients: an unwavering belief in a vengeful God, and a sense of injury stemming from feeling like a reviled, hard-done-by outsider, and you have some of the precursors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Clearly, the murders are not remotely justifiable. At the same time, such violence is not haphazard. Combine extreme religion’s blinders with social ostracism, then season with the testosterone-driven aggressive impulses often found among disaffected young men and you can end up with a lethal stew.

What’s the evidence? Time and again, social psychology experiments have shown that ordinary people can be spurred to commit horrific acts of cruelty. Giving them authority over arbitrarily defined transgressors can prompt brutality, as the Stanford Prison Experiment—in which students were assigned to playact the roles of either guards or prisoners—showed in the 1970s. Persuading them that outsiders are less than human can disable their natural powers of empathy. Priming religious believers with passages showing that God endorses revenge against malefactors is dangerously effective, too.

In 2007, the Michigan social scientist, Brad Bushman, led a study of nearly 500 students, half of whom were Mormons studying at Brigham Young University; the other half were mostly secular students enrolled at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. All were given a violent passage to read that was said to be taken directly from scripture, or alternately, from an unidentified “ancient scroll.” Depicting the rape of a married woman traveling in a foreign region with her husband, the passage sometimes included a sentence in which God commands acts of revenge against the rapists’ foreign tribe. There was no mention of retribution in the passage read by the control group—a subset of the total 500, who were equally likely to be American or Dutch.

Next, all of the participants competed on a task in which the winner could blast the loser with a painfully loud noise through headphones. Who were the most aggressive blasters? More often than not they were the students—both American and Dutch—who identified themselves as fervent believers. They were also most likely to have been shown a passage of what they were told was scripture—rather than an ancient scroll—and to have read about God’s desire for violent retribution. Oh, and these students were also more likely to be male.

Religious men, even ones who regularly read about deities sanctioning violence in their holy books, don’t usually feel the license to kill, of course. In fact, you might expect the opposite. After all, religious people are more likely to do good than other people. They volunteer and donate blood more often than non-believers. They give more money to charity. In most psychology experiments they are more generous and less dishonest than atheists, and in the real world, they commit fewer crimes and abuse illegal subtances less, too. In fact, in the majority of the 39 countries polled by a 2014 Pew study, people say that a belief in God is required to be a moral person. That opinion was most common in poor regions such as Central Asia, and West Africa. But 53 percent of Americans also agree that religious belief makes you more ethical.

So what’s going on? The Parisian terrorists were devout, and like all major religions, Islam espouses the Golden Rule. Why didn’t that stop them from killing?

Part of the answer is that while religion is exquisitely designed to bind people together, enabling them to trust and protect each other, denigrating outsiders can be the flip side of that trust—and that denigration can snuff out empathy fast. Now, brain imaging studies tell us that witnessing bad things happen to those outsiders can make people feel powerful and superior.

Michael Inzlicht at the University of Toronto recently demonstrated that finding by arbitrarily dividing participants into two groups he named “the reds” and “the blues.” The “red” group was shown a video of a model performing certain rituals. After watching the model bow, turn around, and put her hands together, the members of the red group were asked to perform those movements at home for a week. The gestures meant nothing but could serve as a proxy for religious rituals—which have profound meaning to practitioners. The blues had no rituals.

The two groups then played a trust game, and Inzlicht found that the ritualizing “reds” distrusted the nonritualizing outgroup much more than they had before. Not only that, but a subsequent EEG showed that when the blues received negative feedback, the reds showed brain activity consistent with experiencing pleasure. “When they observed the outgroup member getting punished, they enjoyed their misfortunes,” said Prof. Inzlicht.

Now, consider that the perpetrators of last week’s horrifying violence felt excluded by French society—and found their place in an echo chamber of other angry, disenfranchised, and aggressive young men. Add the pain of rejection—which brain imaging studies show can actually be experienced as real, visceral pain—and you get a tinderbox of explosive feelings: A powerful desire to escape a marginalized social situation; to gain a sense of belonging and status by acting as enforcers of a religion’s sacred values; to earn the approval of charismatic religious leaders who incite them to punish “transgressors;”and finally, to experience the anticipated pleasure of witnessing the outsider’s pain.

The terrorists made a choice. It wasn’t rational—even if they believed it was. It certainly wasn’t moral. But their dark minds still merit our study. Understanding the psychology behind their religious blinders is as critical to democracy as condemning their actions.

Susan Pinker is a psychologist and award-winnning writer whose last book, The Sexual Paradox, was published in 17 countries. Her most recent book is The Village Effect.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Sex

Jealousy: One More Way Men and Women are Different

Trouble ahead: Just which kind depends on who's at the door
Anton Ovcharenko—Getty Images Trouble ahead: Just which kind depends on who's at the door

It's never easy to be cheated on, but how you react depends on your sex

Not that I cheated on my college girlfriend when we were both freshmen attending schools 130 miles apart. But if I did, I had an excuse: I was young, I was male and I was an idiot. These are conditions that psychologists like to call “co-morbid.”

The only good thing I can say about myself in this very hypothetical scenario, is that at least I had the honesty to ‘fess up to my faithlessness the next time I saw her. She was not—you won’t be surprised to learn—pleased with my behavior. But what I was surprised to learn (bearing in mind the young, male and stupid thing again) was that she was less upset by the sexual aspect of my infidelity than the emotional.

Soon enough, I came to learn that that was the way of things when it comes to women’s reactions to cheating—or at least that’s the stereotype. The equally glib corollary is that men can tolerate the nuzzling and canoodling part of infidelity better than they can the flesh crescendo it leads to.

Now, research out of Chapman University in Orange, California confirms that when it comes to this one aspect of the great gender divide, the big news is that there is no news to report. The stereotypes, it turns out, are spot on.

The study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, was an ambitious one, involving a whopping 63,894 male and female respondents of both sexes, aged 18 to 65. In addition to basic biographical information such as income, marital history and sexual orientation, the participants were asked to choose (whether from imagination or painful experience) if they’d be hurt more by the carnal or cuddly part of being cheated on.

By a margin that would qualify as a landslide in politics, heterosexual men outpaced heterosexual women 54% to 35% on the physical side of the hurt-feelings equation, while heterosexual women beat heterosexual men 65% to 46% on the emotional side. Homosexual and bisexual men and women were troubled more or less equally by both aspects.

“Heterosexual men really stand out from all other groups,” said psychologist and lead author David Frederick, in a statement. “They were the only ones more likely to be most upset by sexual infidelity.”

In fairness to the straight guys, there’s more than just the doofus factor at work here—there’s also evolution, according to the authors. Short of a paternity test (which hardly existed when our behavioral coding was first being written millions of year ago), a male can never be absolutely certain that a child his mate bears is his, so physical infidelity poses a much greater risk.

And while males in the state of nature are hardwired to mate and mate and mate some more because it’s easy, fun and a calorically cheap way to get their genes across to the next generation, females are coded to seek protection and resources since it’s awfully hard to fetch food and defend against predators while giving birth and nursing. Even modern women are thus inclined—at least evolutionarily—to worry more about the outside romance that may cost them a partner than the roll in the hay that could be a one-time thing.

Societal expectations—outmoded though they may be—exacerbate the difference. Men are still judged more harshly (if only by themselves) in terms of their sexual prowess, while women are brought up to value bonding. Being cheated on thus has a different effect on the sexes because it threatens different aspects of their self-esteem.

Making the study more impressive was that the researchers corrected for nearly every variable other than gender that could have influenced the results—and repeatedly came up empty. Marital status didn’t play a role, nor did a history of being cheated on, nor did income, length of relationship or whether a respondent had children or not. The only factor that seemed to make some difference was that younger respondents of both genders reported a higher degree of upset at the physical aspects of infidelity. That’s probably because younger people of both sexes are in the stage of their lives when they’re helping themselves to that aspect more, so it makes a bigger difference in their relational well-being.

None of this alters the larger takeaway, which is that cheating still stinks. And none of it changes the fact that even a few decades on, a hypothetical person who was guilty of such a thing might still feel kind of bad about it. Or that’s what I’ve been told, but I wouldn’t know. Really.

Read next: Here Are All the Sexist Ways the Media Portrayed Both Men and Women in 2014

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TIME health

6 Surprising Reasons Gratitude Is Great for Your Health

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There are millions of reasons to feel grateful. Acknowledge them all, big and small, every day, and you just may put yourself on the path to better health

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

Count your blessings. Say “thank you.” Consider yourself lucky. They’re directives our parents gave us so we would grow into decent people with decent manners. It turns out, the same advice helps make our brains and bodies healthier, too. “There is a magnetic appeal to gratitude,” says Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and a pioneer of gratitude research. “It speaks to a need that’s deeply entrenched.” It’s as if we need to give thanks and be thanked, just as it’s important to feel respected and connected socially. From an evolutionary perspective, feelings of gratitude probably helped bind communities together. When people appreciate the goodness that they’ve received, they feel compelled to give back. This interdependence allows not only an individual to survive and prosper but also society as a whole. It’s easy, in these modern times, to forget this, however. We’re too busy or distracted, or we’ve unwittingly become a tad too self-entitled. We disconnect from others and suffer the consequences, such as loneliness, anger, or even a less robust immune system.

“Gratitude serves as a corrective,” says Emmons, who is the author of Gratitude Works! But by gratitude, he doesn’t mean just uttering a “Hey, thanks” or shooting off a perfunctory e-mail. He means establishing a full-on gratitude ritual, whether it’s a morning meditation of what you’re thankful for, a bedtime counting of blessings, or a gratitude journal (see How to Give Thanks, right). This concerted, consistent effort to notice and appreciate the good things flowing to us—from the crunch of autumn leaves to the holiday spirit—changes us for the better on many levels, say gratitude experts. Here’s how.

1. You’ll feel happier.

In a seminal study by Emmons, subjects who wrote down one thing that they were grateful for every day reported being 25 percent happier for a full six months after following this practice for just three weeks. In a University of Pennsylvania study, subjects wrote letters of gratitude to people who had done them a major service but had never been fully thanked. After the subjects personally presented these letters, they reported substantially decreased symptoms of depression for as long as a full month.

(MORE: 7 Quick Stress-Busters for When You Have a Full House)

2. You’ll boost your energy levels.

In Emmons’s gratitude-journal studies, those who regularly wrote down things that they were thankful for consistently reported an ever increasing sense of vitality. Control subjects who simply kept a general diary saw little increase, if any. The reason is unclear, but improvements in physical health (see below), also associated with giving thanks, may have something to do with it. The better your body functions, the more energetic you feel.

3. You get healthier.

A gratitude practice has also been associated with improved kidney function, reduced blood-pressure and stress-hormone levels, and a stronger heart. Experts believe that the link comes from the tendency of grateful people to appreciate their health more than others do, which leads them to take better care of themselves. They avoid deleterious behaviors, like smoking and drinking excessive alcohol. They exercise, on average, 33 percent more and sleep an extra half hour a night.

(MORE: These “Healthy” Foods Have Way More Sugar Than You Thought)

4. You’ll be more resilient.

When we notice kindness and other gifts we’ve benefited from, our brains become wired to seek out the positives in any situation, even dire ones. As a result, we’re better at bouncing back from loss and trauma. “A grateful stance toward life is relatively immune to both fortune and misfortune,” says Emmons. We see the blessings, not just the curses.

5. You’ll improve your relationship.

A 2012 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study of more than 300 coupled people found that those who felt more appreciated by their partners were more likely to appreciate their partners in return and to stay in the relationship nine months later, compared with couples who didn’t feel appreciated by each other. Christine Carter, a sociologist at the Greater Good Science Center, at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that gratitude can rewire our brains to appreciate the things in our relationships that are going well. It can calm down the nervous system and counter the fight-or-flight stress response, she says. You can’t be grateful and resentful at the same time.

(MORE: One More Reason to Enjoy a Cup of Coffee)

6. You’ll be a nicer person.

People can’t help but pay gratitude forward. When appreciation is expressed, it triggers a biological response in the recipient’s brain, including a surge of the feel-good chemical dopamine, says Emmons. So when you express gratitude toward a spouse, a colleague, or a friend, he or she feels grateful in return, and the back-and-forth continues. What’s more, thanking your benefactors makes them feel good about the kind acts that they’ve done, so they want to continue doing them, not only for you but also for others.

(MORE: The One Emotion That Lasts The Longest)

Inspired? Research has shown that one of the best ways to home in on the people and the experiences we appreciate is through writing in a gratitude journal. Recording our thoughts, by hand or electronically, helps us focus them, explains Emmons, who says that he, too, does this exercise to remind himself “how good gratitude is. It gives us time to understand better the meaning and importance of people and events in our lives.” Here are strategies for maximizing the benefits:

1. Go for depth rather than breadth. This will help you truly savor what you appreciate, and keep your journal from becoming simply a list of nice thoughts. (Journals like that tend to get abandoned.)

2. Write consistently. But it’s OK if you can’t do it every day. Once or twice a week is enough to boost happiness.

3. Write freely. Don’t sweat the grammar and the spelling. No one else will see this journal unless you want someone to.

4. Don’t think of this as just one more self-improvement project. Rather, it’s an opportunity to reflect on other people and the above-and-beyond things that they’ve done for you, says Emmons. In other words, “it’s not all about us,” he says. “This may be the most important lesson about trying to become more grateful.”

(MORE: 19 Small Changes You Can Make to Improve Your Health)

TIME psychology

8 Techniques Ready to Stop Bad Behaviors

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Karen Pryor’s book Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training explains the fundamentals of behavior change. And these methods are effective whether the subject is a dog, a dolphin or your neighbor, Larry.

The main lesson for getting people to do what you want is that positive reinforcement — rewarding behavior you like — is king. Whether it’s with a smile, a cookie or a bribe, rewards work.

But what about getting rid of behaviors you don’t like? This can be far trickier. Pryor lays out the 8 methods that you can use to stop bad behavior.

Method 1: “Shoot the animal.” In our case, we don’t mean that literally. It means firing an employee or dumping a partner. It works, but it’s extreme.

Via Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training:

“Firing an employee, divorcing a spouse, dealing with a messy roommate by changing roommates: all are Method 1… Fundamentally they eliminate the behavior by restraining the subject physically from the performance, or by eliminating the presence of the subject. The vital thing to understand about Method 1 is that it teaches the subject nothing.”

Method 2: Punishment. (Everybody’s favorite, in spite of the fact that it almost never really works.)

Via Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training:

“Punishment does not teach a child how to achieve a better report card. The most the punisher can hope for is that the child’s motivation will change: The child will try to alter future behavior in order to avoid future punishment.”

If punishment almost never works, why do we do it? We have an ulterior motive: “…establishing and maintaining dominance. The punisher may be primarily interested not in behavior but in being proved to be of higher status.”

Method 3: Negative reinforcement. (Removing something unpleasant when a desired behavior occurs.)

Via Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training:

“People use spontaneous negative reinforcers on each other all the time: the warning glance, the frown, the disapproving remark. Some children’s lives, and some spouse’s lives too, are filled with constant daily effort to behave in such a way as to avoid disapproval.”

Method 4: Extinction, letting the behavior go away by itself.

Via Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training:

“Extinction in human interactions best applies, it seems to me, to verbal behavior — whining, quarreling, teasing, bullying. If these kinds of behavior do not produce results, do not get a rise out of you, they extinguish.”

Method 5: Train an incompatible behavior. (This method is especially useful for athletes and pet owners.)

Via Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training:

“…training a dog to lie in the dining-room doorway when people are eating… Going away and lying down is incompatible with begging at the table; a dog cannot physically be in two places at once, and so begging is eliminated.”

Method 6: Put the behavior on cue. (Then you never give the cue. This is the dolphin trainer’s most elegant method of getting rid of unwanted behavior.)

Via Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training:

“…when the organism learns to offer the behavior in response to some kind of cue and only then — the behavior tends to extinguish in the absence of the cue. You can use this natural law to get rid of all kinds of things you don’t want, simply by bringing the behavior under the control of a cue… and then never giving the cue.”

Method 7: “Shape the absence”; reinforce anything and everything that is not the undesired behavior. (A kindly way to turn disagreeable relatives into agreeable relatives.)

Via Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training:

“I used Method 7 to change my mother’s behavior on the telephone… The conversations were usually, and sometimes excessively concerned with my mother’s problems… I deliberately let her complaints and tears extinguish – Method 4…I then reinforced anything and everything that was not a complaint… within two months the proportion of tears and distress to chat and laughter in our weekly phone calls became reversed.”

Method 8: Change the motivation. (This is the fundamental and most kindly method of all.)

Via Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training:

“Smokers quit when their motives for smoking are met in other ways or when motivations to stop – fear of cancer, say – outweighs the reinforcers of smoking.”

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree. Join over 145,000 readers and get a free weekly email update here.

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