Documentation for Growing Young: How Friendships, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100

April 12, 2021

Many studies and much data are discussed in this book. Why should the reader have confidence in what is presented? The book has a thorough index where references for all the studies and data are provided.

The reader has likely noted that there are no letters after this author’s name, such as Ph.D. or M.D., so why should one have any confidence in her assertions? Well the quality of her research and writing stands for itself. It is definitely of the quality one expects for authors with letters after their names. And it exceeds the quality of some books HM has read from authors with letters after their names.

Epilogue

April 12, 2021

This is the first paragraph of the epilogue from a new book by Marta Zaraska, titled Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You live to 100.

WHAT TO DO TO LIVE LONG? From fountain-searching Ponce de Leon to pill-popping techies from Silicon Valley, humanity has been trying to pinpoint the answer for centuries, often fixating on all the wrong things: miracle diets, miracle foods, miracle supplements. We skip gluten and invest in exercise gadgets. We swallow vitamins. We obsess about BMI. Yet even though healthy nutrition and physical activity are indeed important for health—within reason—there are things that can affect your centenarian potential even more than things that we all too often sacrifice while we chase fad diets and the newest cardio workouts. Friendships. Purpose in life. Empathy. Kindness. Science shows how these “soft” health drivers are often more powerful than diet and exercise. Admittedly, without the right genetic makeup you are unlikely to beat the longevity record of Jeanne Calment, no matter how much you volunteer or how great your marriage is, but if you focus on your relationships and your mind, you may still considerably slow down your epigenetic clock and add years to your life.a

Longevity Lessons from Japan

April 11, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the subtitle of a chapter in a new book by Marta Zaraska, titled Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You live to 100.

Ms. Zaraska writes, “Searching for a book on longevity and chances are, you will come across something with “Japan” in the title. There is good reason for that. At the time of this writing, Japan held the title of the longest-living nation on earth, with their record life expectancy at birth of 84.2 years. That’s almost six years longer than the average American can expect to live, a year and a half longer than a Canadian, and almost three years longer than a Briton. Japan also tops the charts with the highest number of centenarians per capita, and while I was traveling across Japan researching this book, the oldest person in the world, a Japanese woman, died there at the age of 117—older than the country of Australia.”

Continuing,”Yet Japan hasn’t always been a longevity paradise. Right after World War Two, an average Japanese man could expect to live a mere fifty years, and a woman fifty-four years. By 1986, however, the country had already claimed to the top of the world for female life expectancy. What happened? Before the twentieth century, hunger was the norm, and only the past post-war economic growth made malnutrition a thing of the past. Moreover, as the country developed, the health care system received a tremendous boost. Now basically everyone had medical insurance and was guaranteed regular checkups. Mortality rates for communicable diseases such as tuberculosis plummeted, extending average lifespans.”

Ms. Zaraska writes, “The Nagano prefecture, famed across the world for the Winter Olympics in 1998, has in recent years overtaken Okinawa as the Japanese epicenter of longevity. While in the early 2000s there were many publications with the words ‘Okinawa’ and ‘Diet’ in their titles, you might soon start seeing books about the ‘Nagano Diet.’ Without doubt, diet is part of Nagano’s success. Because the area is mountainous, it was hard to grow rice here, and because it’s away from the coast, seafood wasn’t easily available. Instead, the locals ate plenty of vegetables and soy. Today, the people of Nagano still top the nation’s charts when it comes to vegetable consumption—they down 27% more greens than does an average person. There is a saying in the land of cherry blossoms: yam wa ki kara -sickness and health start with the mind. There is another saying hara hachi bu -eat only until you are 80% full.

Continuing, “From all the Nagano’s mountain villages, I chose to visit the unassuming Matsuwaka for a reason: this is the place where men live the longest in the whole of Japan—82.2 years on average, over ten years longer than the male inhabitants of Mississippi. Their longevity formula does include the veggie-loaded diet, but researchers studying the remarkable locals point to two other key factors: social cohesion and the commitment to community.

Continuing further, “I could certainly see this the moment I arrived at a park in the center of Matsuka. First of all, the area was spotless. Not a single piece of trash was visible, and nothing was out of place or broken—no spatial stigma risk here for sure. The facilities were impressive and designed for all. There was a playground, a picnic site, outdoor fitness equipment for adults, a public library, a stage for events, a foot-massage path (you take off your shoes and walk over various types of spikes—painful; I’ve tried). The toilets were so sparkling clean my grandma would have been proud, and she is the Martha Stewart of cleaning. There were even fresh flowers beside the sinks. You could see that this was a place where some very conscientious people truly cared about where they lived. As I strolled around, kindergarten-age children ran alone across the park with no helicopter parents in sight. Two old ladies chatted in the picnic area while another one biked to the library. It was not the picture of communal hustle and bustle you can witness in Latin communities, but everything was orderly and smooth-running. It was an image of a collectivist nation at work.”

Geert Hofstede developed a scale of collectivism—individualism. Ms. Zaraska writes, “citizens of countries that score high on individualism tend to have an ‘I’ mentality, and. You hear them talk a lot about things such as privacy, individual rights, and achievement. A large, tightly knit family to depend on is not part of the picture. As De Tocqueville once said, ‘Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody.’ In a collectivist nation, the focus is on the group—the priority here is harmony and belonging. Loyalty is treasured, and decisions are base on what’s best for everyone. This type of culture is a ‘we’ culture.’

Continuing, “…the US is a very individualistic nation. In Hofstede’s calculations, it came out as number one in the world with a score of 91(on a scale of 0 to 100). The UK got 89; Canada, 80; France, 71; Poland, 60; and Japan scored 46, which placed it on the collectivist end of the spectrum, although still quite far from the most collectivistic country of all, Guatemala—a mere 6. In Guatemala, family is extremely important. Many people live in the same house with their extended family—cousins, aunts, and uncles included—and when they emigrate to the US, they take their relatives with them.”

Ms. Zaraska provides the following suggestions to boost our longevity:
Focus outward rather than inward—try to think about the needs of other people around you more often. Participate in your neighborhood associations. Follow the five-house rule—keep a close relationship with people in the three houses opposite yours and those who in the house to your left and the one to your right. Find your ikigai—purpose in life. Value your work, and, if you are retired, make sure to find yourself to keep you busy and useful to society. Try to find zen—meditate or do haiku of ikebana. Like the Japanese, enjoy the simple things.”

What You Need to Know About Japan

April 10, 2021

The next post will present the country Japan as a good ideal to follow. It is important to know that this version of Japan emerged after its defeat in World War 2. Prior to the beginning of the war Japan had been a warlike country. They fought wars with other countries, and between these wars there was fighting among the warlords of the country.

If you want insight into the psychological makeup of the Japanese, think of white nationalism. Of course in their case they were the superior race. They regarded themselves as being superior not only to the white race, but to every other race that was not Japanese. And they ruled the people they conquered accordingly.

You probably have heard people argue that using the atomic bomb over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not only a mistake, but immoral. These people are sadly mistaken. Allied losses prior to invading were enormous. This is because Japanese soldiers were ordered to fight to their death to defend the emperor. Unfortunately, many did just that. So if the allied forces had been compelled to invade Japan, the war would have lasted much longer and the deaths of allied forces enormous.

What is not appreciated is the the atomic bombing of Japan saved not only allied personnel, but also the Japanese people who would have suffered enormous losses in the tens of millions of lives, if not even more.

The military occupation of Japan by the allies was both enlightened and effective. It was competently lead by General Douglas MacArthur who had an excellent understanding of the nature of the Japanese. He laid the groundwork for the excellent democratic country you shall meet in the next post.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How Meditation and Mindfulness Boost Health

April 8, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a new book by Marta Zaraska, titled Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You live to 100.

Ms. Zaraska admits to being a Sunday only meditator, so she is nowhere near the enthusiasm of HM. HM regards meditation and mindfulness as being central to memory health. Enter each of these terms separately into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com to see what HM means. HM begins each day with the relaxation response to get into the zone and later transitions to loving kindness meditation.

Nevertheless she does present some interesting data which comprise this post. She writes, “Mind-body therapies may also slow down the ticking of your epigenetic clock: DNA from the blood cells of long-term meditators show changes suggesting that the more you practice, the more slowly you age.”

Ms. Zaraska writes, “Another brain region commonly affected by meditation is the insula—the reward related brain area that makes us enjoy helping others. And there is the hippocampus that has everything to do with emotions and memory. Atrophy of this horseshoe-shaped area has also been linked with Alzheimer’s disease. Such an increase in volume of the hippocampus resulting from meditation has been explained by hikes in the levels of a protein called BDNF—brain-derived neurotrophic factor—which helps the development and survival of nerve cells in the brain.”

Continuing, “The positive effects of meditation reach down all the way to the DNA level—even after just a few weeks of meditation, you can see reduced expression of pro-inflammatory genes in white blood cells. Genes associated with antiviral protection, on the other hand, get unregulated (their expression is increased). Think of it as playing with the volume knob on the radio: when you meditate, the level of inflammation goes down while the power of your virus-fighting squads goes up.”

“Some experiments suggest that meditation can work on pain in a similar fashion to ibuprofen (although the magnitude of the effect is still mostly unknown). When people with lots of meditation experience go for an intense one-day retreat, you can see changes in the expression of their COX2 gene. Aspirin and ibuprofen also work to dull aches because they target COX2, putting brakes on the pain-promoting enzymes it helps churn out.”

Ms. Zaraska writes, “Mindfulness makes people ruminate less. It boosts empathy, and it has been shown to quench cravings for cigarettes, a finding confirmed by neuroimaging studies. When smokers who practice meditation look at images of people puffing tobacco, craving-related ares of their brains don’t light up as much as they do in other nicotine addicts. For each day per week of meditation practice, smokers light up 1.52 fewer cigarettes. This might not seem like much, but when you consider that a single cigarette shortens lifespan by eleven minutes, daily meditation may add about two hours of life each and every week.”

“Loving-kindness meditation not only increases empathy but also makes people less-biased and simply nicer. A common theme reported by participants after loving-kindness training are changes in their relationships. After two weeks of loving-kindness meditation, people are willing twice as much money as are those assigned to other personality development interventions. This hike in charity coincides with changes in brain responses to suffering. And since empathy, charity donations, and social connections are all important for longevity, these findings are likely not trivial.”

Still continuing, ”By now you may be wondering what it takes to become a “long-term meditator. In one study it meant a minimum of 1,439 hours of meditation experience. In another study, it was at least three years with daily routines of thirty minutes or more. This may seem daunting, but the truth is that with meditation and yoga, the more you practice, the more benefits you will likely reap. It doesn’t necessarily mean that if you can’t commit to a daily half-hour of practice for years on end that you should throw in the towel. Short bursts of mind-body exercises work too—just less well.

Ms. Zaraska concludes, “What’s more meditating or doing a few yoga asanas (postures in a yoga exercise) is cheap and easy. There is no need to rush to a gym or buy any special gadgets. No need to buy anything, in fact: just find a quiet spot and relax. Feel your breath. Let your brain rewire. Even if some promises of what mind-body routines can do for you are exaggerated—certainly your life’s unlikely to get completely, miraculously transformed—your health will benefit and so will your mind. You may become calmer, more focused, emotionally stronger. You may grow—and not just younger.”

Why Personality and Emotions Matter for Longevity

April 7, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a new book by Marta Zaraska, titled Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You live to 100.

It important to distinguish between hedonic and eudaemonic well being, that is the distinction between pleasure and meaning. It is eudaemonic well being that is important for longevity. Unfortunately Ms. Zaraska does not use the term ikigai. Ikigai is a Japanese word implying having a meaning or a purpose for living. This is central to achieving longevity. Ikigai has been central to many healthymemory posts. Just enter the term into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com.

Ms. Zaraska writes, “…having meaning in life may be more important than happy moods. In one study that directly compared hedonic and eudaemonic well being, people with a purpose in life had a favorable gene expression pattern related to the fight-or-flight response, while those fixated on the pursuit of bodily pleasures had an unfavorable one. In other words, people who have found meaning in their existence had more good genes turned on and more bad ones switched off. What’s more, finding meaning not only boosts our chances of becoming centenarians, it also lowers the risk of cognitive impairment—even in the face of Alzheimer’s disease. If a ninety-year-old with a clear purpose in life develops Alzheimer’s disease, they are likely to keep functioning relatively well despite very real pathological changes in the brain.”

Eudaemonic well-being seems to have direct impacts on our biology, lowering the levels of cortisol and pro-inflammatory cytokines. This leads to the question how do you find purpose in life. It is likely than many already have a purpose in life beyond getting an education and a job. Although these are worthy pursuits they should be instrumental in fulfilling a purpose or purposes, but keep this manageable to increase the probability of fulfillment.

The author suggests instead of looking for hedonic pleasures, try to find purpose in your day-to-day life. “A good first step is to simply acknowledge that a meaning is important and to spend time reflecting on it. Try to recognize your own character strengths and think about how your talent might profit others (in a charitable way). For more ideas, you may want to reach for such books as the classic Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl or the recent The Power of meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessd with Happiness by Emily Esfahani Smith.

Second, it’s important to remember that extra money is not really a solution, and it won’t make you happier. The more people tend to focus on their financial goals, the less happy they become—and this is true not only in the rich countries of the world, but also in the less prosperous ones such as Russia and India. Of course, for people who are struggling to meet their basic needs, a thicker wallet would mean higher well-being, but above a certain income level more dough does not necessarily mean more joy.

Third, don’t chase happiness at all costs—it will keep escaping. Just as with money, fixating on happiness as a goal can backfire and make you less satisfied with life. The word FOMO, fear of missing out, was only officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. It is already such a big deal that the Anxiety and Depression Association of American has dedicated a website to overcoming FOMO.”

Three personality traits that foster longevity are extraversion, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Ms. Zaraska offers the following practices for moving them in a beneficial direction.

To boost your extraversion:
*Say hello to a cashier at a store.
*Call a friend whom you haven’t spoken with in a while.
*Go to a new restaurant or bar and chat with your server.

To work on your conscientiousness:
*Set out your clothes the night before.
*When you notice something you need to buy, write a note for it.
*Pay a bill as soon as you receive it.

To diminish neuroticism:
*When you feel overwhelmed, stop and take several deep breaths.
*Before you go to bed, write down one good thing you can look forward to tomorrow.
*When you feel worried about the future, spend at least two minutes visualizing the best case scenario.

Ms. Zaraska offers some more suggestion to boost our longevity:
If you are neurotic and not very conscientious, try working on these personality traits—it can be done and your health will profit. You can see changes even after a few weeks of simple exercises. Avoid excessive worry and rumination, and if you find yourself being often angry and cynical, talk to a therapist. Although optimism and joy prolong life, don’t chase happiness as an ultimate goal. Instead, try to find purpose. Your life will not only be more meaningful for that, but may last longer, too.

HELPING OTHERS HELPS YOUR HEALTH

April 6, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a new book by Marta Zaraska, titled Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You live to 100.

Ms. Zaraska writes, “Controlling for things such as marital status, religiosity, or social connections, volunteering reduces mortality by 22 to 44%—about as much as eating six or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. What’s more, volunteers may have 29% lower risk of high blood glucose, about 17% lower risk of high inflammation levels, and spend 38% fewer nights in hospitals than do people who shy from involvement in charities.

Frans de Waal wrote in his book The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society: People willfully suppress knowledge most have had since childhood, which is that animals do have feelings and do care about others. How and why half the world drops this conviction once they grow beards and breasts will always baffle me, but the result is the common fallacy that we are unique in this regard.

Ms. Zaraska writes, “In reality, altruism and helping behaviors are far from rare in the animal kingdom. Just google “animals saving other animals” and your screen will be flooded withy cute videos of hippos rescuing drowning baby zebras, horses feeding their hungry neighbors, and baboons chasing off leopards to save antelopes (warning: procrastination danger). If that’s not enough to convince you, rest assured that proper scientific studies also find genuine altruism in many animal species, from capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees to ravens and rooks. Rats, for instance will jailbreak their mates out of their cages even if it means delaying getting to treats as tempting as chocolate chips—and having to share them.”

Changing topics, Ms. Zaraska writes, “Snug in the middle of or brain is a grape-sized area known as the insula. If you are a smoker and you want to blame something for you addiction to Marlboros or Camels, blame your insula. What’s more, damaging that little grape of brain tissue would also quite likely put an end to the habit. Besides addictions, other things that turn on the insula are helping others, donating money to charity, and yes, you’ve guessed it, caring for kids. Additional reward-related brain areas, the septal area and ventral striatum—the very same ones that light up when you find a winning scratch-and-win card—also buzz more activity when you take care of others. By wiring parenthood to the reward system, nature assured we wouldn’t run screaming from poopy diapers, and least not permanently.”

She continues, “Show parents a photo of their baby and their fear centers quiet down like a newborn with a pacifier. The reward-center septal area may also inhibit the stress response through its action on the HPA axis and the sympathetic nervous system. All in all, helping others calms us down. This dampening of stress in caregiving makes biological sense. To be able to properly care for someone else, you have to take a deep breath and step back from your own issues. Also, to help others in distress, you simply cannot be more affected by their suffering. Otherwise your anxiety could make your hands shake and muddle everything.”

Continuing further, “When Laura Aknin analyzed pro-social spending across the globe and ran it against happiness levels, she found that the more money inhabitants of a particular country give to others, the more they end up satisfied with life. This was as true in rich nations such as Australia or Germany as it was in the poorer ones, such as Ethiopia, Algeria, and Afghanistan.”

Ms. Zaraska writes, “…random kindness seems far more contagious than other health behaviors. Take what happened in December 2012 in Winnipeg Manitoba. At a drive-through of Tim Hortons, someone paid for the meal of the driver behind. Then, that second driver, too of gratefulness, paid for the next person. On and on it went until as many 228 consecutive cars paid it forward. I have yet to see healthy eating spread with the same fervor.”

Summarizing, he writes, “Nature equipped us with systems that encourage giving. Benevolence is hard-wired into the areas of our brains, kickstarting the same networks that turn on when we reach for cigarettes or lottery tickets. Helping other also reduces stress, making it easier to offer care and setting off a cascade of physiological changes in our bodies that end up improving our health: reducing blood pressure, lowering inflammation, and, as a result, extending lives.”

Here are a few suggestions she offers to boost our longevity:
“Activate your evolved caregiving system: donate to charity, care for others in your family, and volunteer for causes you truly believe in, be it investing in art, fighting rare diseases, or protecting the environment. Engage in everyday kindness—open doors for others, buy a coffee for a stranger or leave a friendly note on a random car’s windshield. Placemake your community: encourage opening of community gardens and vote for pedestriaization of main streets. Shop in local stores, walk around, pick up litter, and talk to your neighbors.”

Empathy, Attachment, and Social Grooming

April 5, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the subtitle of a chapter in a new book by Marta Zaraska, titled Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You live to 100.

Ms. Zararaska writes, “There are plenty of indications that your attachment style truly matters for your health and longevity—for one, it can affect your physical well-being directly. For instance, adults with more attachment anxiety deal less well with a virus that can cause mononucleosis. Compared to securely attached people, those who are anxiously attached have more strokes and heart attacks, higher blood pressure, and more ulcers. They also suffer more often from medically unexplained musculoskeletal pain . To avoidantly attached people—those who agree with statements such as, ‘I find it difficult to allow myself to depend on romantic partners’—even a simple pinprick to the finger tip can feel particularly painful, much more so than to the happily attached people of the world.’”

Continuing, “…the underlying cause for the links between attachment style and physical health appears to be the stress response and the functioning of the HPA axis. When insecurely attached people experience stress, their HPA axis becomes highly activated—it quickly dumps large quantities of cortisol into the body, which then takes a long time to return to baseline. Cortisol, in turn, can alter the workings of the immune system. In one study, people with high attachment anxiety had 22% fewer T cells than those with lower attachment anxiety. These T cells are vital to the immune system since they kill pathogen-infected cells, and their reduced number is a indication of an aging immune system. In other words, you could say that people who are anxiously attached have the worn-out immune systems of the elderly. And, if that’s not enough, insecure attachment can also mean poor self-control with food—it may be linked to eating disorders, and binge eating in particular. So, if you ever find yourself in front of the fridge at midnight, consider that your attachment style may be to blame.

Ms. Zaraska writes, “Besides directly affecting your HPA axis or your blood glucose, your attachment style can also influence your centenarian potential indirectly by changing the quality of your relationships. People who are securely attached are happier in their friendships, fight less with their loved ones, and are less likely to end up divorced. On the flip side, insecurely attached people are not only less satisfied with their romantic partners, but with their kids as well. And even if they have as many friends as others do, they are often quite negative about the support they are getting. That, of course, is also a longevity wrecker.”

Continuing, “In general, about 55 to 65% of adults are securely attached, 22 to 30% are avoidant, and 15 to 20% are anxious in their attachment style. The bad news for both love and longevity, though, is that insecurity in attachment is on the rise. A large meta-analysis of studies of college students revealed that whereas in 1988 close to 50% of American youth were securely attached, by 2011 that number had dropped to 41%. The scientists behind the meta-analysis point out that smartphones and internet may be to blame for our ‘increased disconnection in an age of increased connection,;”

Contuining, “…just like secure attachment, empathy may also be in crisis these days. A meta-analysis of studies done over thirteen thousand American students showed that between 1979 and 2009, empathic concern for others nose-dived by 48%. Now consider that 2009 was still the early days for smartphones—the word ‘phubbing’ hadn’t even been invented yet. In one of his speeches, former president Barack Obama noted that ‘we live in a culture that discourages empathy.’ He blamed the looming empathy crisis on the selfish impulses promoted by our culture: to be entertained, famous, thin, and rich. Obama was right to point his finger at the pursuit of riches—studies confirm that those who are financially very well off tend to score low on empathy. He was also right that cultures are not created when it comes to ‘looking outward,’ although the US does not come out particularly badly in the rankings. In research conducted at Michigan State University, the US ranked seventh from the top among sixty-three countries, while Canada was twelfth and UK forty-seventh. Ecuador proved to be he world’s most empathic nation.”

Fortunately, many studies confirm that training empathy does indeed work. Ms. Zaraska writes, “It works for children, resident physicians, and sex offenders. The curricula differ, but they usually offer a mixture of such approaches as learning to decode facial expressions, improving listening skills, and mastering how to take the perspective of another person.”

Ms. Zaraska writes about the work of Roman Krznaric who argues ‘that empathy, like every other skill, takes practice, and you should make a conscious decision to work on it. To do so, you should develop curiosity about others and try seeing the world through their eyes, letting go of preconceived ideas. How does life look to your dark-skinned waiter at an Indian restaurant? Where do you think your taxi driver goes after she is off duty? Does she seem tired to you? Happy? What is you kid really feeling when he is winning before dinner?”

Ms. Zaraska offers this additional suggestions to boost our longevity:
Check you attachment style. If you find it’s insecure, consider therapy”. Secure attachment style is directly linked to better health. Next, work on your empathy—the perfect anti-loneliness drug. Watch empathy-boosting movies and read empathy books. Each day, try to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Forget Botox. Turn off your phone. Take empathy classes and sign your kids up for them.
Do things in synchrony with others. Sing and dance. If you do sports, choose ones you can do in sync with friends such as jogging, rowing, or spinning.”

Empathy is a frequent topic in many healthymemory blogs. To see how many enter “empathy” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com.

How Marriage and Friendships Prolong Life

April 4, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the subtitle of a chapter in a new book by Marta Zaraska, titled Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You live to 100.

Ms. Zaraska writes, “Married people have lower risks of heart issues, cancer,, and Alzheimer’s disease. They even sleep more soundly and respond better to flu vaccines. If a married person does have a heart attack requiring coronary bypass surgery, that person is two and a half times more likely to still be alive fifteen years down the road than someone who is unmarried. And when it comes to cancer, marriage can be more effective than chemotherapy. When researchers followed over 700,000 patients with several different types of cancer, they noticed that those who were married had between 12 and 33% higher chances of survival than their unmarried counterparts.

Continuing, “Overall, the effects of marriage on longhand far surpass those commonly found for healthy eating or exercise. In one large sample, not being married meant even three times the chance of death for men, and a risk of 20% higher for women. The researchers who conducted the study called the effects ‘enormous’—and that’s something coming from scientists, who are in general a cautious bunch when it comes to grandiose words. Yet the benefits of marriage are indeed enormous. Abundant research has now shown that from a health and longevity perspective, this is the most profitable relationship one can have. Marriage is not just better than exercise or diets; it’s better than friendship, too-particularly if you are a man.”

Still continuing, “So what is it about marriage that gives those who go for it unprecedented longevity benefits? Maybe it’s simply that the healthiest people get married in the first place, while the less strong-bodied ones remain spinsters and bachelors? Yet when studies control for pre-selection into marriage, the effects on health remain. Something else is going on. Perhaps it’s about economic factors—after all, the pooling of resources that happens with marriage is better for the wallet, which may translate into better health access, better nutrition, and so on. But once again, financial well-being does not account for all the longevity perks of matrimony.”

Ms. Zaraska writes, “World-renowned marriage expert John Gotten, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, believes that it’s the strength of commitment that is responsible for the health and longevity benefits of marriage. He believes that is why cohabitation may not offer the same gains. Gotten told me about a fascinating experiment in which holding hands reduced the activity of the amygdala in gay couples, but only if they considered themselves married. ‘In any relationship that can create that sense of trust and commitment , people will get the benefits,’ Gotten told me. Researchers in general distinguish two types of cohabitating couples: those who intend to stay together till death do us part, and those who don’t. It’s only the former who may reap the health benefits of a romantic relationship. So if you want to live long, it might be a good idea to adopt the viewpoint of Audrey Hepburn, who once said, If I get married, I want to be very married.’”

That a loving marriage may give you oxytocin and dopamine boosts and calm down your HPA axis seems quite straightforward. But what if the marriage is bad? What if all you do is bicker all day? What if there is serious abuse? The evidence here is divided. In some studies, all wives and husbands come out ahead of single people in terms of health, even with all the dysfunctional relationships thrown into the mix.

Ms. Zaraska offers the following suggestions to boost our longevity:
“Prioritize your romantic relationship, and really commit to it. Read books and articles on ow to be a better partner. Avoid the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness. Talk with your spouse often about the good things that happen in your daily life. Try new, exciting things together and have fun (rollercoasters and ballon rides are great). Invest in friendships. Spend more time together, disclose your secrets and ask for favors. Stop phubbing your close ones—put your phone away and cut down on social media.”
From dictionary.com to ignore (a person or one’s surroundings) when in a social situation by busying oneself with a phone or other mobile device:
Hey, are you phubbing me?

Why Feeling All Alone May Shorten Your Life

April 3, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the subtitle of a chapter in a new book by Marta Zaraska, titled Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You live to 100.

Ms. Zaraska writes, “Loneliness kills— and not just because it can drive a person to suicide. It kills slowly by messing with your stress response and altering the function of your genes. Feeling all alone in the world may have nothing to do with how many friends you have or how much they care about you, but it can still up your risk of cancer and heart disease, and it can shorten your life more than obesity or a couch-based lifestyle.”

She continues, “In the Western world as many as one in five people experience loneliness. It hurts them just as much as physical pain does, like a gaping wound. They may feel so desolate that to get an oxytocin boost, they sign up for sessions at professional cuddling shops. They may have to take particularly long and hot showers to fool their brains into feeling socially connected. These measures do work, but only temporarily. To avoid the negative health consequences of loneliness, lonely people need to realize that the feeling is natural, that we’ve evolved to have it. It use to protect us, yet now it often leads us astray, locking us into negative patterns of thinking. With effort, behavioral therapy, or even hypnosis, such patterns can be changed. The feeling of loneliness can be decreased even if you don’t make a single new friend.”

Still continuing,”But subjective and social isolation, albeit important, is only part of the story. The objective part—how many close, loving relationships we have—matters at least as much for our longevity and health as does the subjective feeling of loneliness. What we need is what scientists call “strong social support”—a network of friends, family, and neighbors to whom we can turn in times of need. But how can we be sure we have enough of that social support? And if we don’t have enough of it, how do we know whether we’ve slipped into the “socially isolated” category? Is having one close friend enough? Or are three or more friends necessary if you really want to increase your centenarian potential? Do you have to be married to reap the longevity benefits? Luckily, we have decades of research to give us some answers.

Ms. Zaraska offers these suggestions for boosting your longevity:
If you feel lonely, the first step is to realize that this is a biological adaptation and not a sign something is wrong with you. Stop blaming yourself. Try to change your thought patterns. Think, ‘Yes, I’m not as sociable as I would like to be’ instead of, ‘Everybody hates me.’ Try to warm yourself up physically—take warm showers and drink hot tea. Don’t fixate on social threats or how others are ‘trying to get you.’”

Why Many Diet and Exercise Interventions Matter Less Than You Think

April 2, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the subtitle of a chapter in a new book by Marta Zaraska, titled Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You live to 100.

There is an effect called The Roseto Effect. Roseto is a small town in central Pennsylvania. It is neither particularly pretty nor charming, surrounded by unexceptional nature. But a local physician, Dr. Benjamin Falcone, had barely seen any heart disease in locals under the age of sixty-five in seventeen years of practice. When researchers compared Roseto to its surrounding communities, even ones sharing the water supply and medical facilities, they discovered that mortality rates in Roseto were 30 to 35% lower than in its counterparts.

Scientists concluded that it was not the genes and it was not the diet either. The Rosetans loved sugary treats, cooked with lard, and enjoyed sausages—41% of their calories came from fat. They made their own wine and loved to drink it. They did not abstain from hard liquor either. Moreover, the Rosetans also smoked and worked grueling hours at a quarry or at a local factory. Obesity was common.

After many years of research the mystery was solved, and the answer took many by surprise. Roseto’s unusual healthiness was due to outstanding sociality, which had roots in the town’s history. Roseto was settled in the late nineteenth century by immigrants from Roseto, Italy, who, though they forgot about their healthy Mediterranean diets soon after settling, did not abandon their jovial attitudes. Surrounded by unfriendly neighboring communities, from the very beginning the Rosetans felt they had to stick together, and they did.

They look out for each other, followed Italian traditions, and lived in multigenerational homes. Families were strong, elders were respected. They celebrated family events with big gatherings in their back gardens, with lots of food and plentiful wine, and did so often. The Rosetans believed individuals were part of something larger, a community—they had twenty-two civic organizations in a town of under two thousand inhabitants, from fishing and hunting clubs, sports clubs, and Christian youth organizations to a library.

Among Rosetan men, 81% were members of at least one such organization. Admittedly, women didn’t have many clubs, but they were active in the town’s social life through church groups and cooking—they gathered together often to prepare food for events and celebrations. The locals also cared for the looks of their town; they kept it clean and pretty, regularly picking up trash off the streets and planting flowers around the town center. Last, but not least, they were very neighborly. In the words of one Rosetan housewife, ‘The neighbors were always in my kitchen and I was always in theirs. We talked. We knew what was going on there, and there was always someone around to help you and to keep your from feeling lonely.’

In 1963, a physician named Stewart Wolf, who studied the Roseto effect extensively, made a dire prediction. Were the Rosetans to abandon their values and sociability, they healthiness would plummet and their mortality rate would to start to resemble those in other small American towns. And that is exactly what happened. As modernization set in and Roseto opened itself up to the rest of America, the community spirit evaporated.

After reviewing extensive research on this topic Ms. Zaraska concludes that the majority of evidence points to the greater importance of social integration and mindset to longevity than that of diet or exercise alone. This is why the World Health Organization lists “social support networks” among its “determinants of health” alongside the more widely acknowledged “balanced eating, keeping active” and “safe water and clean air.”

Here are summaries of studies regarding things that lower mortality risk

Food/Exercise Change in mortality risk Social/Mind Change mortality risk
Intervention Intervention

Exercise -33% to -23% Happy marriage -49%

6 or more fruit & -26% Large social -45%
vegetable servings network

Whole grain -23% Having others -35%
3 servings/day for social support

Mediterranean diet -21% Living with someone -19% to-32%

Vegetable 20% Extraversion -24%
Intake

Overweight -6% Volunteering -22%

Omega 3s no effect Agreeableness -20%
intake

Vitamin C no effect Having a purpose -17%
Intake in life

Here are summaries of things that increase mortality risk

Food/Exercise Change in Social/Mind Change in
Intervention mortality risk Intervention mortality risk

Red meat +29% Loneliness +26%
Intake

Obesity,
Grade 2 and 3 +29% Pessimism +14%

Vitamin A +16% Unhappiness +14%
supplement

Beta-carotine +7% Neuroticism +14%
Supplement

And here are a few suggestions Ms. Zaraska offers to boost longevity:
Ditch protein powders, expensive organics,, and miracle foods (there are no miracles). Stop taking multivitamin pills—popping over for a chat in your neighbor’s (HM adds depending on your neighbor) kitchen, Roseto-style, will bring you more health benefits, without potential side effects. Skip fitness trackers—it’s better to engage in some community gardening. If your are a bit overweight, stop obsessing: being social and mindful likely matters much more for your longevity.

Is An Oxytocin Intervention Needed

April 1, 2021

Reading and understanding the immediately preceding post is needed to understand the current post.

As of this writing (6 March 2021) conditions in the United States have deteriorated to the point that one party is contesting the validated results of the presidential election and ignoring the empirical reality of the pandemic. An argument can be made that an intervention of Oxytocin and other neuropeptides such as vasopressin, endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin is necessary. It can be argued that these neuropeptides have played a critical role in the evolution and advancement of our country. But somehow this advancement has been sidetracked and our very democracy is threatened.

Providing these neuropeptides to all members of Congress perhaps supplemented with massage therapies might initiate positive interactions and real progress in the Congress. An argument might be made that these same treatments are needed for the voters who elected these members.

Should these interventions prove to be successful, the world stage and international relations might be next.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Sniff of Love

March 31, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a new book by Marta Zaraska, titled Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You live to 100. The subtitle is How Social Hormones Influence Our Relationships and Longevity.

Ms. Zaraska writes, “Oxytocin is a protein-like molecule that neurons use to communicate with each other. Outside of the brain, it can also act as a hormone, regulating many different processes in the body. Oxytocin evolved about 700 million years ago, long before the first animals set their paws on land. Over the millennia, oxytocin and its close relatives became widespread in the animal kingdom, helping them with reproduction and sociality. They induce mild letdown in lactating mammals be it squirrels of humans. They cause contraction of the gut in worms and contraction of the uterus during human childbirth. …When you see a dog looking faithfully into his master’s eyes, oxytocin is at work, too.
Continuing, these are not just some spurious connections. There are very good biological reasons why oxytocin, together with other hormones such as vasopressin, endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, play a vital role both in our social lives and in our health, tying them together. These so-called neuropeptides are the reason why being neighborly or having a happing marriage may add years to our lifespans.

Neurochemical links between sociality and physiology or having a happy marriage may add years to our lifespan. Neurochemial links between sociality and physiology are crucial to our species. Some researchers even argue that social hormones have actually made us human. According to one theory called “the neurochemical hypothesis for the origin of hominids” (yes, it’s a mouthful) selection for high amounts of dopamine and serotonin in our brains tilted our personalities toward less aggression and higher levels of cooperation. And while over our evolutionary history we’ve become kinder, calmer, and friendlier, at the same time the sclera of our eyes turned white, our lips became pinker, and our brains shrank.”

Ms. Zaraska writes, “Richard Wrangham, a primatologist at Harvard University, believes that our ancestors self-domesticated themselves in recent evolutionary history, which resulted in milder tempered more pro-social behaviors on one hand and in smaller brains, smaller jaws, pink lips, white eye scleras, and flatter faces on the other. … It is true that for the large part of our evolution our brains grew, but since late Pleistocene times, approximately thirty thousand years ago, they’ve actually slightly shrunk by about 10%. It might have been a side effect of selection for less reactive aggression, or in lay terms, better tempers.”

Continuing…”Oxytocin not only makes us loyal, less quarrelsome, and more empathic, studies also show that it can directly affect our physical health, which would help explain the many links between sociality and longevity. The underlying reason here is this: nature is lazy. It reuses stuff. First, it was simply regulating water balance to prevent dehydration. Then it was immunity and metabolism. And then, other functions were added, such as activating the milk let-down reflex during breastfeeding. Nature repurposed oxytocin and related hormones for regulating our social behaviors.

Still continuing…”One of the key roles here is played by the amygdala. The amygdala reacts strongly to oxytocin, which can moderate the activation of the amygdala in response to stressful situations, calming us down. Oxytocin also reduces stress by acting directly on the HPA axis. The very neurons in the brain that kick off the HPA axis response carry receptors for oxytocin, and if the molecule binds to the receptor, it puts brakes on the activation of the HPA axis and the cortisol release. You feel less stressed—and stay healthy.”

Continuing further, “Such receptors for oxytocin are found not only inside our brains but all over our bodies. We have them in our bones, our hearts, even in our guts. It’s hardly surprising then, that plenty of studies have found links between levels of oxytocin and health. There is evidence that oxytocin has anti-inflammatory properties, that it promotes the formation of new neurons in adult brains, that it reduces pain, and that it helps bone growth potentially preventing osteoporosis. Oxytocin’s effects are so powerful that some researchers have even dubbed it the ‘elixir of youth.’

Still continuing…”…the Greek father of Western medicine, Hippocrates, claimed that ‘rubbing’ was an important skill for any good physician to acquire. Contemporary research confirms that massages can boost oxytocin, leading to better health and, presumably, to longer lives. Same goes for other social hormones. Massage therapy can boost serotonin by 28% and dopamine by 31%.

The chapter ends with A Few Suggestions to Boost Your Longevity:
To get a health-promoting increase of your social hormones, such as oxytocin or serotonin, engage in more physical contact with others—kiss your partner more often hold hands with your kids, hug your friends. Rub each other’s backs. Treat yourself to a massage. And don’t forget to look others in the eye-it may help raise oxytocin levels for both of you (and it works every better if that ‘other’ is a dog.

The Vagus Nerve

March 30, 2021

This post is based on a book by by Marta Zaraska, titled Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You live to 100. It is a continuation of a preceding post “How Your Mind Talks With Your Body,” and the immediately preceding post “The Second Brain.” The vagus nerve goes from the base of the skull down the neck and along the trachea to the heart and then wanders down to the lower abdomen, where it innervates the gastrointestinal tract. It’s responsible for breathing, swallowing, and digestion. It’s also responsible for the way the heart beats. The vagus nerve is a major nerve of the autonomic nervous system and as such also plays a role in the fight-or-flight response. In contrast to the HPA axis, it calms down the system after stress, bringing on relaxation once an adrenaline-pumping event is over. The heart slows down, breathing steadies, digestion picks up again.

Ms. Zaraska continues, “Sudden overstimulation of the vagus nerve can be a bad thing—it can basically shut you down, slowing your heart so much that it stops, causing a psychogenic death or a drowning-like event. Yet milder increases in vagal activity are quite good for you, keeping the body relaxed and mind relaxed and in top condition.”

Although it seems to be counterintuitive, the more varied the heart rate, the better. In a normal heart, the time that lapses between two successive heart beats is always slightly different—breathing in and out changes the rate. There is a technical term for this change in rate—vagal tone. Having good vagal tone means that this change in rate is close to optimal.

If there is a lacking in this chapter it is advice on how to stay emotionally healthy. A specific type of meditation, loving-kindness meditation, promotes good vagal tone. You can learn more about vagal tone and how to promote it by going to
healthymemory.wordpress.com and entering “vagal tone” into the search block. You will also find many other useful posts on this topic.

Meditation is key to both physical and psychological health. Enter “relaxation response” into this search block.

The Second Brain

March 29, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Leah Thayer in the March/April, 2021 issue of the Observer. The article begins, “The Plausibility of ‘gut feelings’ may seem inherently incompatible with the data driven enterprise of psychological science. But a growing body of research on the brain-gut axis suggests that microbes in our digestive system indeed have a measurable role in our brain function and structure, influencing mood, emotion, and behavior along with other important aspects of our personalities and our mental and physical health.”

Continuing, “The gut microbiome is home to the largest collections of microorganisms in the human body. It encompasses the trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms that live inside the gastrointestinal tract, and which includes not only the stomach but also the mouth, esophagus, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine and colon. After the brain, the gut contains the body’s largest number of neurons. In recent years, studies on humans and animals, some using neuroimaging, have added to the evidence of links between the composition of gut microbiomes and brain processes. For example, lack of certain gut bacteria has been associated with psychiatric disorders ranging from anxiety and depression to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Research has also revealed connections between bacteria in the microbiome and personality traits. And introducing certain kinds of bacteria into the body has been shown to alleviate adverse effects of stress and even disease symptoms.

There is a two way interaction between the brain and gut microbiota. Lifestyle, stress, drugs, and diet are affected by this interaction.

The Hypothalamus, Pituitary gland, adrenal gland axis interaction function well in the healthy human, whereas this interaction is hindered in depressed individuals.

Neural circuits are characterized by homeostasis in healthy individuals, whereas there is disruption in these circuits in depressed individuals.

The Immune system functions well in healthy individuals, whereas there are inflammatory cytokines in the immune system in depressed individuals.

There are neuroactive metabolites in healthy individuals where the gut barrier is altered in depressed individuals.

How Your Mind Talks With Your Body

March 28, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a new book by Marta Zaraska, titled Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You live to 100. Emotions are very old in evolutionary terms. They inform us about the state of our environment and our bodies and help us prepare an adequate response. Ms. Zaraska writes, “Emotions may also facilitate learning things that are emotionally loaded simply get better ingrained in our memory.”

Neuroscientists distinguish emotions from feelings. Feelings being the mental experiences of emotions. Emotions are very much planted in our biology (the cerebral cortex is involved). Ms. Zaraska writes: “Emotion is basically that thing that stirs in your gut or chest. Feeling is what your brain does with that stir, how it experiences it. Emotions are our guide to the environment. Feelings are how we interpret the signs. Emotions are automatic, while feelings are more conscious.”

The amygdala is the subcortical brain structure that elicits fear. Faced with a criminal with a knife, you would probably experience a certain mixture of emotions (fear, panic, anger), sharper attention, and physical sensations such as a racing heart, sweaty palms, and difficulty swallowing. This is the fight-or-flight response in which your mind and body interact to save your life, just as it worked for our ancestors on the savanna.

Ms. Zaraska writes, “The fight-or-flight response evolved to aid us in either wrestling dangerous animals or helping us make a successful escape. The rate and force of heart contractions increase. Blood pressure goes up. More blood is pumped into our skeletal muscles to help us move more quickly, boosting our strength. Our bronchial tubes dilate, which makes breathing easier. The pupils in our eyes dilate, so we can better focus our sight. In extreme situations some people may even empty their bladders or bowels—this is also an evolved part of the fight-or-flight response.

Whether we’re faced with a lion or an angry boss, the first changes in our body happen in split seconds. This is our sympathomedullary pathway activating. It’s a very primitive pathway that works whether we want it or not. The amygdala, the fear center, sends a message down to our adrenal glands, which are two grape-sized organs that sit on top of our kidneys. The adrenal glands then release a soup of hormones which includes adrenaline. Our blood is diverted away from our gut and kidneys to those parts of our body that are more vital to saving our life, such as the skeletal muscles and our brain.

Then the second system kicks in, a more complicated one known as the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. Once alarmed by the amygdala, a part of the brain called the hypothalamus starts a hormonal cascade that again ends up revving up the adrenal glands, just a different part of them. Another cocktail spills into the bloodstream, this one containing hormones such as cortisol.

This hormone has a bad reputation as the sidekick of stress. It has been called “public health enemy number one.” On the physiological side, cortisol has been linked to weight gain, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. On the psychological side, it’s been shown to spur aggression and antisocial behaviors.

Scientists Hench, Kendall, and Reichstein received the Nobel Prize in 1950 for their discovery of cortisol. But it took many more decades of research to get a better understanding of its role in our stress response and mind-brain connections. Cortisol is just one cog in the machinery of stress, the HPA axis, which involves a whole cascade of hormones. First, there is the corticotrophin-releasing hormone secreted by the brain’s hypothalamus into the blood. The hormone triggers a pea-sized organ at the base of our brain,, the pituitary gland, to pump out adrenocorticotropic hormone, which flows all the way down to the kidneys, where it switches on the production of hormones such as aldosterone and cortisol from the adrenal glands.

Ms. Zaraska writes, “Unfortunately, when the activation of the HPA becomes chronic, troubles start to mount. The axis becomes regulated and the levels of cortisol stay constantly up. The hypothalamus begins to shrink (so, stress shrinks your brain or at least some part of it). What may grow, though, is your stomach. Since cortisol takes up fat from places such as the legs and arms, and then lets it settle around the waist, we may grow chunkier in our mid-section—that’s why some researchers use a high waiste-to-hip ratio as a marker for chronic stress.

Ms. Zaraska continues, “By modifying cortisol levels and the activation of the sympathomedullary pathway, our psyche can change our body all the way down to our DNA, changing the expression of our genes. …If a person is under chronic stress, the stress pathways flip on genes involved in inflammation. The immune system takes energy to run and compromises have to be made. So down went antiviral protection, and up went inflammation, which is great for fighting bacteria in an oozing wound.

Continuing further, “ Today, however, this response to adversity is far from helpful. What it means in practice is that persistent worries over jobs, kids, and mortgages make us less resistant to viruses, from the common cold to flu, and more prone to inflammation, which in the long run leads to diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and cancer. Out of the ten leading causes of death, chronic inflammation contributes to at least seven.

Still continuing, “Intertwined with the stress pathways, the immune system is itself a great connector between our minds and our bodies, helping explain how our emotions and thoughts affect our health. This is a hot new area of research, recently christened “immunopsychiatry.”

So it is not surprising that there are psychogenic deaths. The clue to what may be causing psychogenic deaths comes from some cases of drowning. About 10 to 15% of people who die plunging into an ocean or river have no water in their lungs, indicating that they haven’t, in fact, drowned at all. In animal experiments similar cases have been attributed to overstimulation of the vagus nerve. Such sudden vagal death, some scientists believe, could also explain the mortal power of voodoo curses.

Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100

March 27, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a new book by Marta Zaraska. The book provides excellent advice on living a healthy and fulfilling life. So even if living to 100 is not your goal, this is still a good book, not just to read, but to use as a source for living a healthy and fulfilling life.

Jeannie Calment, a French lady, has set the world record for human longevity. She made it to 122 years and 164 days. This record has been verified and established beyond doubt. When asked if she had any ideas for what might have caused her to live this long, she would just shrug and say that God had forgotten her.

The author writes, “Calment liked to amaze journalists, whom she adored, with talks of her cigarette smoking and port wine drinking. But these were lies too, according to the gerontologist Robine. She only smoked for about two years (starting well after her 110th birthday), and only smoked one Gauloise per night, as a social thing to share with a smoker friend. She admitted to Robine she would tell the media whatever they liked to hear, and a cigarette-puffing, boozing centenarian does make a good story.

Robine believes that the ins and the love of interviews revealed something important about Calment’s personality, and possibility some part of her longevity secret. She was strong, rebellious, curious about the world, and fiercely independent. As a child and a young woman she was supposedly so out of control that her father would not allow her to go anywhere unsupervised. As a married woman, Calment loved to try new things: helicopter flights, skiing, you name it—and remember that we are talking about the late nineteenth and early twentieth century here. One of the first things she did after getting married, even before the wedding night was to ask her husband for a cigarette so that she could finally experience smoking (her father hadn’t allowed it). She took a puff and then extinguished the cigarette right away. She had tried it; that was all she wanted. She loved savoring all life had to offer.

She was happy with her husband, Ferdinand. They were married for almost half a century, and she would later claim that she only had good memories of their time together. She’d say he was the ‘perfect man, and she never tried to remarry after his death. Ferdinand was seven years older than Jeanne, and died in 1942 at the age of seventy-three.

When Calment agreed to be moved to a nursing home at the age of 110 (after she had almost set her house on fire by trying to defrost the pipes with a self-made torch), she made three demands: that the staff would provide hotel-style turndown services for her; that every day she would be woken up fifteen minutes before everyone else so that she had time to primp herself; and that the head doctor would allow her to call him ‘my dear.’ She was bossy, but above all she was an optimist, something that the gerontologist Robine speculates was as least in part responsible for her longevity. Calment divided life’s events into two groups. First: things you could change. These you should act on right away. Second: things your couldn’t change. These your should forget.

Zaraska offers a few suggestions to boost your longevity.

Don’t trust anyone who tells you they’ve discovered a secret to longevity.

Don’t waste your money on genetic predict-your-lifespan tests or banking your own stem cells.

Forget miracle longevity pills—many of them are simply dangerous.

If you want to live longer, try to find a romantic partner or work on your current relationship—being happily married can lower your mortality rise even by 49%. Or volunteer, which may lower your risk of death by about 22%.

Hugging It Out With Cows

March 25, 2021

The title of this post is identical to part of the title of an article by Kellie B. Gormly in the Health & Style Section of the 16 March 2021 issue of The Washington Post. The entire title is Hugging it out with cows to overcome loneliness.

Aimee’s Farm Animal Sanctuary in Queen Creek AZ is an interesting place. “The sanctuary has about 100 rescued farm animals, many with disabilities. Cow-cuddling sessions, which cost $75 an hour are booked until July. Owner Aimee Takaha says she gets around 20 calls a day about the service she has offered for five years. Business has picked up dramatically in the past year.” The nine cattle at her farm include Adorabull, an Anguss steer rescued from a ditch; Moonicorn, who has one eye; and a miniature cow named Moochacha.

The bovines will amble over to guests for hugs and cuddles, she said. They also like to roll over on their sides and rest their heads in people’s laps. Sometimes, a turkey named Azalea or a chicken will come by to join. Participants often become emotional, she said, and some even vow to become vegetarian after looking deep into the creatures’ large brown eyes.

The bovines helped Jeannnie Whalen cope with grief after losing her husband, Walter, in May. She credits Moothias and other animals at Aimee’s for comforting her. ‘It brings a smile to my face and just a wonderful sense of awe.’

Suzanne Vullers who is originally from the Netherlands, offers cow-cuddling sessions at her 33-acre Mountain Horse Farm in Naples, NY a service available to guests at the bed-and-breakfast for about three years. She and her husband Rudi offer hour-long sessions several days a week from May through October for $75. They book up quickly; a few weekends in May are already booked solid.

Vullers said it’s a particular draw for city dwellers who have been cooped up and are seeking to immerse themselves in nature to de-stress. ‘Spending time with large animals like cows, it’s one of the ways that you can do that’, she said.

She added that the cows also enjoy the hugs. ‘You cannot hug your friends, you cannot hug your grandkids. At this point, we still have to be careful’ she said. ‘But as people, we have that need to be close to others. The cows are safe..and they like that interaction as well.’

Readers might wonder what this post is doing in the healthymemory blog. This post underscores the role and need for empathy both between and within species.

This is only the first part of this wonderful article. To read the rest, please go to the original source.

Using Hands-Free Cellphones in Cars?

March 24, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the question posed in the title of an article by David Tuller in the Health & Science section of the 23 March, 2021 issue of the Washington Post. The answer to this query is no or certainly not. There have been many previous healthymemory posts on this topic, and it needs to be repeated frequently. Legislators could not have been more wrong when they thought that using hands leads to accidents. Although this might play a minor role, it is the loss of precious attentional resources when using the phone while driving that is deadly. David Tuller writes, “in the case of cellphones and driving, the evidence is unequivocal. Hands-free does not mean risk-free. It doesn’t even mean less risky than handheld. The body of research shows that both types of cellphone conversation lead to major driving deficits.”

Continuing “The dangers of distracted driving—and of cellphone use in particular—have been well-known for years. In 2018, more than 2,800 people were killed and 400,000 injured in traffic accidents involving distracted driving, according to federal statistics. Two dozen states and D.C. ban handheld phone use while driving. But these laws do not meet the strict recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board. In 2011, the agency assessed the available literature and called for states to ban all cell-phone use while driving, including hands-free.”

Simulation research shows that drivers using hands-free phones looked less at traffic lights, car mirrors, dashboard instruments and peripheral areas than non-phone users, and were slower to brake.

Similarly, a 2018 analysis of dozens of studies concluded that “conversation on a handheld or hands-free phone resulted in performance costs when compared with baseline driving for reaction time, stimulus detection, and collisions.” Another review suggested that hands-free conversations could create unique concerns because, “drivers compensate for the deleterious effect of cell-phone using a handheld phone but neglect to do so when using a hands-free.” This review is somewhat misleading in that some might infer from it that it is an endorsement of handheld phones. No. Handheld phones are dangerous, but hands-free phone are even more dangerous.

Some might argue why is using a phone while driving more dangerous, when conversations within cars are not regarded as dangerous. The answer can be found in two words, “Situation Awareness.” Those inside the car are aware of what is happening, whereas people who are not in the car do not have this situation awareness.

Stress Can Affect Your Focus

March 23, 2021

The title of this post is identical to part of the title of an article by Emily E. Smith in the Health & Style Section of the 16 March 2021 issue of The Washington Post. The first part of the title is Missing Your Spark.

Robert Desimone, professor of brain and cognitive processes, and director of the McGovern Institute of Brain Research said, “When you attempt to write or edit a report amid intense distractions the brain will try to filter out the distractions, but there’s a cost. You’re left with less brain power for the report. You will not get any individual thing done as well if you’re trying to do multiple things at once.”

The article continues, “Experts agree getting sleep is a top priority. Just as the pandemic upset our routines, it upset sleep cycles for many people. And the lack of adequate rest has major consequences, affecting everything from our mood to our cognitive abilities to our ability to concentrate.”

Desimone said, “Filtering out distractions? You’re not if your sleep-deprived.”

The article continues, “Desimone said the urge to constantly process information or ‘hypervigilance’ is a natural tendency in a dangerous situation. But the impulse to closely monitor for updates can hurt your work performance. He said the solution is to assign a time to be hyper vigilant, such as an hour after work when you’ll tune into the latest news and catch up on what’s happening.

Exercise is another first-order remedy. Capanna-Hodge said many people are exercising less because their old habits were built into a routine away from home: going to a gym, walking from the bus stop to the office, attending group fitness classes. She recommends squeezing in some form of movement you enjoy and making it a point to stand up and stretch hourly.

She also said that many people are also feeling the fatigue that comes with long days of screen time. Stretching and moving throughout the day can also help mitigate that, plus giving your eyes a rest. She recommends practicing this exercise hourly during long sessions in front of the screen: Close your eyes for five seconds, then open them and refocus for five seconds on something far away.

Take some time off. The article continues, “For some, that might mean putting their phone away or turning off cable news. It’s also important to add in some ‘positive recovery experiences’ to make time off restorative. Those activities would be anything you find fun or relaxing, such as reading, crafting, going for a run or bike ride, or playing with your kids.”

HM feels compelled to add meditation to these practices. Much has been written about meditation in previous blog posts. To find out how much go the the website healthymemory.wordpress.com and enter meditation into the search block. Perhaps the best place to begin is with the posts for the “Relaxation Response.”

What Really Works to Help an Aging Brain

March 22, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Christie Aschwanden in the Health & Science section of the March 9, 2021 issue of the Washington Post. She begins by citing a psychologist, Denise Park, who mainly offers advice of the not to worry variety. However, she does state that there is evidence that older adults can create brain pathways to cope with diminished ones and to increase their processing capability.

It is both obvious and unfortunate that Christie Aschwanden does not read the healthymemory blog. If she did she would be aware of the critical distinction between what is accessible in memory and what is available in memory. At any moment an enormous amount of information is available in memory, but is inaccessible at the moment. If you try to search for it and fail, depending upon the effort of your search, it is likely to pop into your mind at an unexpected moment in the future. There have also been simulation studies done that include the fact that as we age, an enormous amount of information accumulates in our memories. The simulations have shown that as the information increases, it becomes more difficult to retrieve. And when this retrieval becomes more time consuming, the likelihood of stopping to search for it increases. HM tells his fellow seniors never to apologize for so-called senior moments. They can be attributed to the massive amount of information, and we hope wisdom, that has accumulated over the years.

She correctly notes that moderate exercise, even just walking is helpful. She cites a review of 46 trials with more than 5,000 participants concluding that exercise is associated with reduced cognitive decline and seems especially helpful for working memory. And a 2017 review of randomized, controlled trials concluded that in adults 50 and older, moderate intensity exercise (either aerobic exercise or strength training) was linked to improved cognitive function.

Ms. Aschwanden also writes, “Numerous computerized brain training exercises are commercially available. While some studies have suggested these programs might be helpful, there is currently little evidence that computerized cognitive training can delay or forestall dementia.” Computerized brain training does make the user better on the games, but there is little or no transfer to general cognition.

Ms. Ascwanden writes, “This means it’s important to find a cognitive challenge that you’ll stick to….Park says the trick to to find something mentally difficult that’s also engaging and that allows some room to progress. That could be learning a new language or musical instrument or even taking up quilting, which is a hobby that can require advanced spatial thinking.”

She continues, “Things that you can do to stay mentally and socially engaged appear to be especially helpful. For instance, some evidence exists that people who retire, especially from low level jobs, have faster mental declines than people who keep working, Zelinski says. It doesn’t mean don’t retire, but if you do, it’s a good idea to fine some other activities, such as volunteering, to keep you socially and mentally engaged.”

Continuing further, “Social connection and activities involving interactions with other people are particularly helpful. ‘When you go to party where you don’t know anybody you’re actually engaged in a pretty complex cognitive task, Park says, ‘You’re meeting new people, trying to remember their names and keep their stories straight,’ and that’s a good way to exercised this kind of cognition.

Although the diet advice is good, it receives more extensive coverage in the posts on Dr. Gupta’s book Keep Sharp (Enter “Keep Sharp” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com). Dr. Gupta also presents arguments against the role of amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles in causing Alzheimers. He believes that they are more likely the result, not the cause, of Alzheimer’s. There are many cases of people, who after death when autopsies were performed found amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, yet these people never knew they they had the defining characteristics for Alzheimer’s and never exhibited any of the cognitive or behavioral symptoms of the disease. Dr. Gupta’s book comes highly recommended as does
They Myth of Alzheimer’s by Peter J. Whitehouse, M.D., Ph.D. and Daniel George, M.Sc.

Mental Time Travel

March 21, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Anna-Lisa Cohen in in the Health & Science section of the March 9, 2021 issue of the Washington Post.

The article begins, “Our ability to mentally separate from the present is what Harvard University researchers Randy Bucknet and Daniel Carroll refer to as self-projection or, more colloquially, mental time travel. The psychologist Endel Tulving, a pioneer in memory research, is credited with first acknowledging the uniquely human ability to decouple ourselves from the present environment. …Self-projection enables us to travel both backward and forward through time. We might relive a past argument with a spouse scene by scene, or imagine how we will behave in an upcoming job interview.”

Continuing, “…Projecting ourselves to a desired future moment can serve as a much-needed escape. But it can also be profoundly inspiring. If we can conjure up a clear image of an ideal future moment—say, as we complete a marathon or hike the Inca trail in Peru—achieving that goal might feel more tangible and attainable. The idea is that a if you can conceive it, you will achieve it.” William James, the father of American psychology said, “Anything you may hold firmly in your imagination can be yours.”

In the 1998 article, “Harnessing the Imagination,” Shelley Taylor and her UCLA colleagues argue that the act of mental simulation or imagining makes events seem real. They feel so vivid because the operate within the constraints of reality. The content of future simulations usually consists of details from the past, making them more plausible.

The author writes, “Jack Nicklaus, considered one of the greatest golfers of all time, once wrote, ‘Before every golf shot I go to the movies in my head.’ He described how these mental simulations of his next shot were critical to his success.

HM recommends doing mental time travel during idle moments. It is also something to try when you have difficulty falling asleep. Becoming upset about not being able to fall asleep is counterproductive. However, even if mental time travel does not bring about sleep, the time spent in mental time travel should, at a minimum, be enjoyable.

HM Does Not Dream

March 19, 2021

Or more likely, HM does not remember his dreams. But as readers of this blog should know, most of our cognitive processes occur at a non conscious level. The authors of When Brains Dream, Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold, have developed a useful theory on the basis of the conscious recall of dreams. In the final chapter the authors note that future tough questions belong to the larger fields of cognition and consciousness research. Psychology began with the introspective studies of conscious processes. Dream research is recapitulating this sequence of research with the studies of dreams. However, dreams are likely just the tip of cognitive processes during sleep.

HM has written that the best way of thinking about memory is as a corporation. Consciousness resides in the top floor of the building in the executive suites. But there are many floors below with staff working on our cognitive processes of which we are unaware. It is now quite clear that human memory works 24 hours seven days a week. Dreams are the conscious parts of these processes that occur when we are asleep, but it is likely that the majority of the processes during sleep are non conscious. Dreams represent just the conscious part of our sleeping cognitions.

The book also includes a chapter titled THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT, which includes PTSD, Nightmares, and other Dream-Related Disorders. And a chapter titled CONSCIOUS MIND, SLEEPING BRAIN, which covers the art and science of lucid dreaming. And a chapter titled TELEPATHIC AND PRECOGNITIVE DREAMS. These topics are lengthy and too complicated to be summarized adequately in blog posts. So if you are interested in these topic, you are encouraged to read the book.

Individual Dreamwork

March 18, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in a new book by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold, When Brains Dream. The authors write:
“The first step in working with your dreams is to keep a record of the dreams you remember. In the previous post, we suggested methods for eliciting problem solving dreams; these ideas also apply to keeping a dream journal. Specifically, keep a pen and paper or a recorder by your bedside. When you are ready to go to sleep, tell yourself that you will remember you dreams in the morning and, most important, give yourself a chance to remember them. Repeat, ‘I will remember my dreams’ three times before going to bed. It’s embarrassing, but it works.’ When you wake up the next morning, don’t open your eyes, and don’t start thinking about your day. If you were awakened by an alarm, turn it off and close your eyes again. Lie quietly in bed and try to float back into a dreamlike state. Give yourself a couple of minutes to remember as much of your dreams as possible. If nothing comes to you, try slowly changing positions (turning onto a side or back).

When you remember a dream, keep your eyes closed and review everything you can remember about it. Only then should you write down or record your dream. The important thing is to get everything down before it’s forgotten, even it it’s just a vague sensation or an isolated image. Once you’ve recorded a dream that you want to explore, start by rereading it carefully. Close your eyes and take the time to re-experience the dream, its images, thoughts, and emotions—from start to finish. Next, ask yourself some questions designed to help explore what the dream may mean to you. The following list gives some example questions. The list isn’t exhaustive, nor is it definitive, but it’s a good place to start.

*How did you feel in the dream? What was its central emotion?
When was the first or most recent time you felt this way?

*Think of the dream’s setting. What was it like being there? Does it remind you of anything?

*Think of the people in your dream. What were they doing? If you recognized dream characters from waking life, what are they usually like? Who or what else do they remind you of? Can you see parts—liked or disliked—of yourself in these dream characters?
How do you feel about these parts?

*If there was an animal in your dream, what was it doing? How did it make you feel? How would you describe its personality or chief distinguishing feature?

*What were the main images in the dream? What kinds of associations come to mind
when you think about these images now? Can you identify waking-life sources for them?

*What was on your mind when you went to bed that night?

*Given your answers to these questions, does your dream—or specific elements in it—remind you of particular situations, experiences, or ongoing concerns in your life?
*Taken as a whole, what do the answers to these questions suggest about who you are and who you want to become, and how you view and interact with the world around you?

The authors continue, “Working with these kinds of questions can help you better understand your dreams, although you will probably need to work with several dreams before becoming comfortable with the process. Moreover, it’s important to keep in mind the new information, connections, or insights about yourself or your life circumstances may not arise from the whole dream, but from one of its elements. In other words, don’t expect to ‘understand’ your dreams in their entirety, especially when you’re starting out working with dreams that are particularly long, complex, or bizarre. Gleaning information from a central image, theme, emotions, or interaction from the dream is a much more likely, and equally valuable, outcome. Give it a try.”

Dream Incubation Technique

March 17, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in a new book by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold, When Brains Dream. The following is a step-by-step approach Antonio Zadra has been recommending for years to help elicit problem solving dreams.

When you are ready to go to sleep, tell yourself that you will remember your dreams in the morning and, most important, give yourself a chance to remember them. Repeat, ‘I will remember my dreams’ three times before going to bed. It’s embarrassing, but it works.’

Choose a night when you are not overly tired or under the influence of substances that may negatively affect your sleep, such as alcohol, sleeping pills, or recreational drugs.
Take a few minutes to think about the problem you want to target in your dreams. You may find it helpful to ask yourself some questions like these: Am I ready to act on this problem? How do I feel about the situation at this very moment? What would be different if the problem was resolved?
Summarize the problem in a short phrase, question, or one-line sentence. Don’t be afraid to change the wording until you find the version that feels right. Write down this incubation phrase and keep it by your bed.
When you are ready to go to sleep, tell yourself the you will dream about the problem. Make sure you have a pen and paper or recorder (a smartphone will do) by your bedside.
Repeat you incubation sentence to yourself as you fall asleep. If you catch your mind wandering, let those thoughts go and bring you attention back to your phrase.
Sleep!
Upon awakening, either in the middle of the night or in the morning, lie quietly in bed with your eyes closed. If awakened by an alarm, turn it off and close your eyes again. Give yourself a few minutes to remember as much of your dream as possible. Only then, open your eyes and write down or record everything you remembered, even if it’s just an isolated image or fragment of a dream. Avoid making any judgments about the dream at this point; focus on getting everything down before it’s forgotten.
Examine how your recalled dreams may related to your incubation phrase.

The authors write, “Most important, don’t get discouraged if you don’t recall a dream or see no link between your dreams and the problem you’ve targeted. As with most things in life, practice helps. It might take several nights to get an answer. And if your dream did help address your question, then do it again the next time you’re stuck on a problem.

Why and to what extent dream-incubation techniques work remains a matter of debate. We have proposed that a brain uses the sleep-onset period to tag current concerns, or incomplete processes, for later processing during sleep. We think the dream-incubation method outlined here — as well as similar techniques — simply helps the brain tag the targeted problem. Then depending on the networks explored by NEXTUP over the night, and on what dreams you recall upon awakening, you might find a creative insight or solution to the problem. What to do with your slithering helpers, however, we’ll leave for you to figure out.”

NEXTUP and Insomnia

March 16, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in a new book by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold, When Brains Dream. The authors write, “If you’ve ever suffered from even brief bouts of insomnia you probably know the sensation of your brain seeming to run at full speed, it would be rehashing everything worrisome and incomplete from your day, when you just want to relax and fall asleep. Why does your brain do this? Indeed anxiety, be it stress, concerns, or apprehensions—is a major cause of insomnia.”

The reason is that the brain is using the sleep-onset period to tag current concerns—incomplete processes—for later processing during sleep..

The authors continue, “Although the increasing rates of insomnia around the world may well reflect increased stress and worrying, we think there is another contributor—smartphones and earbuds. Take a look at people walking down the street, driving in their cars, eating alone in restaurants and cafes. Not so long ago, these people wouldn’t be doing anything else. Their minds would wander and they would daydream; their Default Mode Network (DMN) would be active, and although they were totally unaware of it, they would be tagging recent memories for processing later that night. But at first the Walkman and then the iPhone came to dominate our free time, the DMN has slowly been squeezed out of our daily lives. Maybe all those worries come crashing in at bedtime because it’s the only time we’ve left the brain to perform the critically important task of identifying and tagging memories for later processing. Maybe. You can’t have your iPhone and sleep, too.”

A similar problem occurs when one is starting to meditate. To get into the zone, one must learn to ignore the constant chatter generated by the DMN. One needs to quiet the brain for meditation to focus on one’s breath and the subject of meditation. Shutting down this constant chatter for the DMN can be quite frustrating and one needs to learn to shut down this chatter to get into the zone for meditation.

NEXTUP and the Default Mode Network

March 15, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in a new book by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold, When Brains Dream. The Default Mode Network (DMN) has been a topic for previous healthymemory blog posts. The use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has allowed scientists to look at brain activity while people are performing a whole range of mental tasks and create detailed 3-D maps of that brain activity. As more brain imaging studies were published, it became clear that something strange was happening. While turning on its own specific set of brain regions, each mental task also turned off other regions. Originally scientists assumed that the activity pattern during quiet rest reflected the activity of the brain not doing anything. This turned out to be a foolish assumption. Our brains are never silent, they are always thinking about something. Because of this, the brain areas that that turn off whenever we start to carry out a mental task are the regions that do what the default mode network (DMN) would do, whose discovery has helped us appreciate just how true it is that the brain never rests.

The authors write, “When we look at the brain regions that make up the DMN, we find a sub-network that monitors the environment for important changes, watching out for any danger. Keeping us safe is probably one function of the DMN. But we also find a sub-network that helps us recall past events and imagine future ones, another that helps us navigate through space, and yet another that helps us interpret the words and actions of others. And these are the mental functions associated with mind wandering. Much of mind wandering involves hashing over events of the day or anticipating and planning future events. Indeed, such planning has been proposed as a function of mind wandering. So it’s perhaps not surprising that mind wandering is associated with increased activity in the DMN. This appears to be a second function of the DMN.”

Much of the DMN is also activated during REM sleep, suggesting that the term daydreaming may be more appropriate than we thought. William Domhoff and his colleague Kieran Fox have suggested that REM sleep dreaming constitutes a brain state of ‘enhanced mind wandering’. Domhoff has proposed that the neural substrate of dreaming lies within the DMN. When you put it all together, you get an extension of the NEXTUP MODEL. Whenever the waking brain doesn’t have to focus on some specific task, it activates the DMN, identifies ongoing, incomplete mental processes—those needing further attention—and tries to imagine ways to complete. Sometimes it completes the process shortly after the problem arises, making decisions without our ever realizing it. But at other times it sets the problem aside after tagging it for later sleep-dependent processing, with or without dreaming. Several dream theories have suggested something like this—that dreaming helps us address areas of concern in our lives. The DMN might provide the mechanism for identifying these concerns, thereby determining what’s NEXTUP.

NEXTUP and Dream Function in Different Sleep Stages

March 14, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in a new book by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold, When Brains Dream. The authors ask the questions how the function of NEXTUP might vary in different sleep stages. They write, “These differences are likely greatest when looking at sleep onset. The hypnagogic period is a unique link between pre-sleep mind wandering and early sleep dreaming. A “fracture point” often takes place in sleep-onset mentation, wherein rational waking thoughts—inevitably about waking concerns or incomplete mental processes—shift into hypnagogic dreams.”

Supporting this notion Silvana Horovitz found that the DMN is active throughout the hypnagogic period. She also saw a dramatic increase in brain activity in visual processing regions after sleep onset. Other features of these dreams give additional support to the idea that these dreams have a unique role in NEXTUP. Hypnagogic dream reports from the sleep-onset (N1) stage of sleep are dramatically shorter than other non-REM and REM dream reports. They’re often clearly related to the thoughts people have immediately before falling asleep, frequently evolving smoothly, if unpredictably, from those thoughts. Hypnagogic dreams are usually less bizarre and much less emotional than dreams from later in the night, and they often lack two features that are almost always present in other dreams; namely, self-representation and narrative structure. Much of the time these dreams are just unusual thoughts, or random geometrical patterns, or a simple picture, like a landscape or a face.

NEXTUP does its best work for REM sleep. Compared to non-REM dreams, REM dreams are longer and more vivid, emotional, and bizarre, and they have more complex narratives. In addition, when people try to identify the waking sources of the content within these dreams, they report distinctly fewer episodic memory sources—memories of actual events in our lives that we can fully bring back to mind, essentially allowing us to relive the original event. For example, if you saw flying saucers in a non-REM dream, you might identify its source as a related episodic memory, saying, “Oh, those flying saucers looked just like the pizza I had for dinner last night.” In contrast, in a REM dream, you’d be more likely to say, “Oh, they looked just like pizzas. I love pizza,” thereby identifying a general semantic memory (I love pizza) instead of a specific episodic memory (I ate pizza last night). This example aligns with how we imagine NEXTUP working in REM sleep as it tries to use the simulated world of the dream to generalize from these memory sources and create a more integrated understanding of their meaning and importance.

By comparison N2 dreams are shorter and less emotional, bizarre, and vivid. But perhaps the most telling difference is that the waking sources of N2 dream content tend to be more recent and more episodic—what you had for dinner, what your partner told you at dinner, who washed the dishes, and so on—and do not arise from less specific “semantic” memories such as what you like to eat, what you often talk about with your partner, and which household chores are yours. The memory sources used in constructing N2 dreams thus lie between immediate pre-sleep sources of hypnagogic dreams and the very loose associative links to secant memories seen in REM dreams. The function of these N2 dreams is probably intermediate as well. Although REM sleep appears to be seeking weak, often unexpected, remote associations that might be usefully related to memories of unresolved concerns from the day, N2 dreams prefer to search for more obviously related episodic memories from the recent past.

Anna Schipiro made the argument that non-REM sleep as “an opportunity to recap the details of the day’s events, providing additional exposure to information that was recently acquired from the world,” and that of REM sleep as facilitating the “exploration of cortical networks containing long-term memories.”

The authors write, “This separation of REM and non-REM functions provides a rationale for the normal sequence of sleep stages across the night. Each night begins with N1, moves to N2 and N3, and then moves to REM before cycling between N2/N3 and REM for the rest of the night. As the night progresses, non-REM sleep decreases and REM increases, allowing the brain to seek out weaker and weaker associations and our dreams to become more and more bizarre.”

NEXTUP

March 13, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a new book by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold, When Brains Dream. This chapter presents a model of dream function that explains why a human brain must dream to carry out critical components of its sleep-dependent memory evolution function. The model is called NEXTUP—network exploration to understand possibilities.

NEXTUP proposes that dreaming is a unique form of sleep-dependent memory processing that extracts new knowledge from existing memories through the discovery and strengthening of previously explored weak associations. The authors write, “Typically, the brain starts with some new memory, encoded that day—maybe an important event, a discussion overheard at work, or something related to a personal concern—and searches for other, weakly associated memories from any time in the dreamer’s past. The brain then combines the memories into a dream narrative that explores associations the brain would never normally consider. In doing so, NEXTUP searches for and strengthens the novel creative, insightful, and useful associations discovered and displayed in our dreams.

The authors believe that when our brains dream there is a preference for weak associations. They write that this explains why so many of our dreams lack any transparent connection to the dominant thoughts, feelings, and events of our day. Even when connections are obvious, the usefulness of a dream generally isn’t. But this is exactly what NEXTUP predicts—weakly associated networks are being explored to understand possibilities. The brain is searching more widely than during wakefulness, going through less obvious associations, and digging for hidden treasures in places it would never consider while awake. In the glare of day—when our brains are dealing primarily with new incoming sensations and the balance of neurotransmitters in our brain is optimized for processing the here and now—the usefulness, or ‘rightness,’ of these newly found associations might be incomprehensible. But that’s fine. We don’t need to understand why our brain chose these associations. We don’t need to know whether the associations used to construct a given dream were useful. We don’t even need to remember the dream. All the important work was done while we slept. Associations were discovered, explored, and evaluated while we dreamed, and if our brain calculated that some of them were indeed novel, creative, and potentially useful to us, then it strengthened them and filed them away for later use.

Another consequence of NEXTUP’s preference for weak associations is the prevalence of bizarreness in dreams. It also helps us understand certain possibilities. Much, if not a majority, of our thinking is convergent. That is, different memories are used to converge on the answer to a problem. But, divergent thinking is present in much dreaming. This takes a single memory and uses it to answer a variety of problems.

The authors write, “Many of our dreams may feel strange and meaningless, but a surprising number of them seem to engender in us a strong sense of their importance. We know that the brain is specifically searching for weak associations. This means it is exploring associations that, under normal circumstances, it would react as somewhere between uninteresting and just plain ridiculous. When we’re dreaming, the brain must shift its bias toward scoring associations as potentially valuable when it normally wouldn’t. It needs to give itself a little push if it’s going to decide that any of the weak associations incorporated into its dream narratives are meaningful and useful.”

The authors continue, “It’s a little like the sixties, when people were dropping acid and having profound “acid insights” along the lines of, “When you flush the toilet, everything goes down!” They would tell you this, wide-eyed in awe at their amazing insight, then get a bit sheepish and say, ‘It meant more than that; it really explained everything.’

In fact, the feeling that dreams have meaning is not just a little like the sixties. It’s likely identical. Bear with us here for a few sentences in neurochemistry. Pharmacologically, lysergic acid diethyl amide (LSD) works by activating serotonin receptors, including serotonin 1A receptors, which in turn can block the release of serotonin in parts of the brain. All the weirdness of LSD—the hallucinations and acid insights and everything else—may be a direct consequence of this biochemical blockage of serotonin release. This obviously isn’t the normal state of affairs in the brain. But there is one time every day when serotonin release is completely blocked, and that’s during REM sleep.”

We dream in both REM and non-REM sleep, but the most bizarre, emotional , and unlikely dreams—and arguably those that seem most meaningful to us—occur in REM sleep. The reduction in serotonin levels during non-REM sleep (relative to wakefulness) and the complete cessation of its release during REM sleep may serve the important role of shifting the brain’s bias toward assigning more value than it otherwise would to those weak associations activated during dream construction. This chemical action may be the grease that enables these potentially useful new associations to slip into our repertoire of valuable insights, and in so doing produced a felt sense of meaningfulness.

Have You Been Paying Attention?

March 12, 2021

Did you notice that until the immediately preceding post, The Feeling of What Happens, all the posts on When Brains Dream had been about sleeping and the brain. Sleeping can be identified and analyzed using a variety of instruments and measures that were discussed. However, The Feeling of What Happens post, deals with dreaming. Dreams require the description of what people have experienced once they have been awakened. So dreams deal with consciousness and the subjective reports of consciousness. This makes dreaming a more difficult topic to research than sleep.

Damaisio is dealing with consciousness and he argues that the subjective experiencing of emotions (what he call feelings) is at the core of consciousness. He provides the example of a woman who had damaged amygdalae and could not experience emotions. She was unable to determine what were bad bets. Damaisio argues that this was because she couldn’t feel the wrongness of her bets.

Theorists have a tendency to paint their theories with a broad brush. HM is skeptical of the assertion that “the experiencing of emotions is critical for the evaluation of apparently straightforward situations.” HM would argue that many cognitive and logical decisions are made absent any emotions. Indeed, emotions can lead to erroneous decisions. Damaisio might be able to provide more support for his assertion, but that requires much more evidence and more detailed articulation than the example provided in the post.

Still, Zadra and Stickgold’s conclusion that we need to experience emotions in our dreams if we are to evaluate them, might maintain. Emotions might be an essential element of dreaming, but it is difficult to accept that emotions are required for many types of human cognition.

The Feeling of What Happens

March 11, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a book by Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy at the University of Southern California. He argues that the creation of narrative is one of the greatest powers of consciousness. He argues that we cannot construct narratives outside of consciousness. And without this capacity to construct them, we wouldn’t be able to recall the past, imagine the future, or plan ahead. Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold write, “Being able to imagine and plan for the future we are similarly critical of several forms of sleep-dependent memory evolution; and to do so, the sleeping brain needs to dream. By dreaming, the brain creates conscious narratives that imagine and explore a host of possibilities in a way that other, nonconscious forms of sleep-dependent memory processing cannot. We must dream if we want to perform these functions of sleep.”

Damaisio also argues that the subjective experiencing of emotions (what he calls feelings) is at the core of consciousness, critical for even everyday decision-making. Even when making ‘totally rational’ decisions, we rely on our emotional readout to confirm that we have made the right choice. Damaisio offers the example of a woman with a genetic disorder that led to the destruction of her brain’s amygdalae. Without her amygdalae, she could not experience fear or anger. As a result, she had never learned the signals of potentially unpleasant, and frankly dangerous, situations the rest of us learn to read—and depend on—as children. On a simple gambling task, she couldn’t determine which choices were bad bets, even though she saw them time after time. Because she couldn’t feel the wrongness of her choices, she couldn’t learn their wrongness.

Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold conclude “From this perspective, it’s not surprising that emotions are so prevalent in dreams. If we accept Damaiso’s conclusion that the experiencing of emotions is critical for the evaluation of even apparently straightforward situations, then it’s clear that we need to experience emotions in our dreams if we are to evaluate them—to understand what they mean for us.

Thus, emotionally engaged narrative dreaming is required for the full exploration, evaluation, and strengthening of novel associations relevant to our ongoing concerns. This process, in a nutshell, is the biological function of dreaming.”

Defining Who We Are

March 10, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in a new book by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold, When Brains Dream. The authors write, “sleep also plays a major role in forming our sense of self. How we think about who we are is determined largely by our autobiographical memories of important events in our life, and sleep helps shape those memories. Several laboratories have shown that sleep preferentially consolidates emotional memory, leaving less-interesting memories to be forgotten. Jessica Payne extended these findings by showing that sleep even selectively consolidates the emotional portion from a photograph of a scene (for example, a crashed car but not the palm trees in the background), leaving the rest of the details in the photo to be forgotten.

Just the emotional objects in the photos benefited from a night of sleep—not any unemotional objects, not the neutral backgrounds—and it is these same key emotional elements in our autobiographical past that we most remember and use, both consciously and unconsciously, to construct our sense of who we are. In a real sense, we are what we sleep. And, of course, our dreams likewise capture the emotions of waking events much more than the detail of those events, making this a second example of dream content matching memory processing in sleep.

Sleep can also soften our emotional responses when we recall them. Matt Walkier has coined the phrase, ‘Sleep to forget, sleep to remember’ to describe this process. Although sleep selectively retains our emotional memories, it reduces the strength of our emotional response when we are exposed to them again. Such softening of our emotional responses is a crucial element of recovering from traumatic events—and, again, we can thank sleep for this benefit.”

Sleep Stages

March 9, 2021

This post is based on a new book by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold. Most people have heard of REM sleep. REM being an acronym for rapid eye movements that occur during sleep. In addition to REM, there are three other stages named N1, N2, and N3. Both N1 and REM occur during sleep onset. These stages are followed by N2 and then N3. Then N2 reoccurs followed by N1/REM. Then sleep falls back into N3 slow wave sleep. Later it bounces back to N2 and then N1 REM. Then it falls back to N2. Then up to N1REM, then back down to N2. Then back up to N1REM. Then back down to N2, which is followed by N1REM and then reawakening.a

REM sleep is identified by eye movements. The N states are evaluated with an electroencephalogram (EEG).

Sleep provides a unique benefit for all these different forms of memory evolution. But the different stages of sleep don’t contribute equally. For example, overnight improvement on a typing task depends on how much N2 sleep we get, especially late in the night. Most verbal memory tasks depend on how much N3 sleep we get, while emotional memory and problem solving tasks seem to depend on REM sleep. A visual discrimination task’s overnight improvement depends both on how much N3 sleep we get early in the night and how much REM sleep we get late in the night.

These unique sleep-stage dependencies may explain why all these different sleep stages evolved in the first place. If we think of sleep as a time when the brain is optimized for memory evolution, it makes sense that the neurophysiology and and neurochemistry that would be ideal for strengthening memories for word lists might be different from what’s ideal for improving on a typing task, and both might be different from the best conditions for problem solving. As far as we know, this is the best explanation available for why humans have so many different stages of sleep.

Sleep and Memory Evolution

March 8, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in a new book by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold, When Brains Dream. The authors write, “When first encoded in the brain, memories are fragile, susceptible to both interference from other newly forming memories and simple forgetting. If not forgotten within a few seconds—as your memory of the start of this sentence will be—it remains in a relatively delicate form for a few hours, until the brain has had a chance to “consolidate” it. This process involves the synthesis of new proteins that cement the connections within a network of nerve cells that collectively form the physiological basis of the memory.

Memory consolidation was first described in 1900 by the German psychologist George Elias Muller and his student Alfons Pilzecker. But evidence that sleep played an additional and sometimes crucial role in this process came only much later, thanks largely to the work of Elizabeth Hennevin in France and Carlyle Smith in Canada. Together they published two dozen articles on sleep and memory in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite their consistently high-quality publications, it wasn’t until 2001—a full hundred years after the first description of memory consolidation by Muller and Pilzecker—that an article from Bob’s laboratory entitled “Sleep, Learning, and Dreams: Off-line Memory Reprocessing” was published in the prestigious journal Science and finally pushed the research community into taking the sea of sleep-dependent memory consolidation seriously. Announcing a new era of sleep and dream research, it boldly proclaimed:

Converging evidence and new research methodologies from across the neurosciences permit the neuroscientific study of the role of sleep in off-line memory reprocessing, as well as the nature and function of dreaming. Evidence supports a role for sleep in the consolidation of an array of learning and memory tasks. In addition, new methodologies allow the experimental manipulations of dream content at sleep onset, permitting an objective and scientific study of this dream formation and a renewed search for the possible functions of dreaming and the biological processes subserving it.

Since 2001, over a thousand scientific papers have appeared, extending our knowledge of how sleep stabilizes, enhances, integrates, analyzes, and even alters our memories, processes that vastly improve what we know and how we understand it. The authors titled this section ‘Sleep and Memory Evolution,’ not ‘Sleep and Memory Consolidation.’ Although sleep does consolidate recently formed memories and makes them much more resistant to interference and forgetting, it also does much, much, more than that. The term memory evolution acknowledges this, as well as the fact that our memories continue to change in a number of ways over our entire lifetime.

The Housekeeping Functions of Sleep

March 6, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in a new book by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold, When Brains Dream. “During childhood, most growth hormone is secreted at night during deep, slow-wave sleep. The growth hormone triggered by this release of growth hormone can cause a child to grow as much as two-thirds of an inch in 24 hours, usually in conjunction with eating more and getting more sleep than usual. Indeed, in one study of infant growth, spurts often went hand in hand with bursts of increased sleep, and the infants grew up to a tenth of an inch for every extra hour of sleep.”

“Intuitively, it seems that growing taller must be easier to do when you’re lying down, asleep. The same can be said for sleep’s other housekeeping functions, such as regulating insulin and producing antibodies. In the ten days after getting a flu shot, the blood levels of antibodies against the flu can increase fifty-fold. But to get the optimal benefit from the vaccination, its recipient must get enough sleep. In one study, participants were allowed only 4 hours of sleep at night for six nights, starting four nights before the vaccination. A week later, their antibody levels were only half those of participants who had slept normally. In another study, participants deprived of just a single night of sleep after receiving hepatitis vaccination similarly produced only half the antibody levels of controls. Why is sleep so important for antibody production? Again, we lack a formal answer, but the reason is most likely the same as for growth hormone. Sleep is just the easiest time to get the immune response cranked up for maximum antibody production.”

“Insulin regulation tells a similar story. The hormone insulin is produced in the pancreas and is secreted when levels of glucose in the blood start to rise. The hormone instructs muscle, liver, and fat cells to absorb the excess glucose from the blood and convert it to glycogen or, for longer term storage, into fat. When this process breaks down, the result is diabetes. What does sleep have to do with this? After being allowed only 4 hours of sleep for five nights, otherwise healthy college students began to look prediabetic. The rate at which their bodies cleared glucose from their blood dropped 40% compared to controls getting 8 hours of sleep a night, reaching levels seen in older adults with impaired glucose tolerance. In addition, their body’s response to the acute administration of insulin dropped 30%, similar to the change seen with aging or in pregnancy-related diabetes.”

“Eve van Cauter at the University of Chicago has suggested that the current epidemic of obesity—40% of American adults are now considered obese, up from just 14% fifty years ago—may be due as much to our ever-decreasing sleep as to our ever-increasing intake of sweets. Again, we’re not sure why sufficient sleep is critical to maintaining insulin’s ability to effectively regulate blood sugar levels, but critical it is, and the trend toward less and less sleep may be leading up to 100 million Americans on the path to diabetes.”

One last housekeeping function of sleep is worth noting. Sleep appears to play an important role in the cleansing of unwanted waste products from the brain, including beta-amyloid, a protein whose accumulation in the spaces between nerve cells is a major determinant of Alzheimer’s disease. We don’t know why Beta-amyloid accumulates in our brains as we age, but it’s clear that it is removed from our brain twice as fast while we’re sleeping as when we’re awake. After just a single night of sleep deprivation, the level of Beta-amyloid in these interstitial spaces increases by 5%.”

“In this case, we think we know why sleep is so important. The clearance of waste from the brain is linked to the flow of cerebral spinal fluid, which washes over the cells in the brain and carries away waste products. It turns out that during sleep this flow occurs impulses, and the pulses are timed to the slow waves of non-REM sleep. It’s these slow waves that appear to be driving the flow of cerebral spinal fluid and the clearance of Beta-amyloid from the the brain.”

HM has a valued friend who is retired. He was a brilliant engineer and one of the best story tellers HM has had the experience of enjoying. He was an active sailor and well into his retirement until the symptoms of Alzheimer’s became apparent. Virtually everyone thinks that he would be the last individual you would think of to be suffering from Alzheimer’s. HM remembers him telling a class of his, which HM had the pleasure of attending, that at an early age he decided that there was too much in life to enjoy to waste time sleeping, so he trained himself to get by with four hours of sleep a night. He held firm to this discipline, and that is the only reason that HM can find to account for his slide into dementia.

When Brains Dream

March 5, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a new book by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold. The authors write “As recently as the late 1990s, we were largely in the dark about the biological function of sleep. There were arguments that sleep conserved energy, allowing organs, tissues, and cells to recover from the consequences of a day of exertion. Others argued that sleep just kept us out of harm’s way at night. But strong scientific support for these ideas was lacking, and none of these arguments seemed strong enough to explain sleep’s appearance and maintenance over hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

The suggestion by some researchers that sleep didn’t serve any function led the pioneering sleep researcher Allan Rechtschaffen in 1979 to acerbically comment, ‘If sleep did not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process ever made.’ Even twenty years later, at the close of the twentieth century, things weren’t much better: Allan Hobson at Harvard Medical School accurately quipped that the only know function of sleep was to cure sleepiness.”

For many people, sleep seems more of an inconvenience than something of inherent value. “But let’s be very clear about this. If you keep rats awake for extended periods, they all die within a month. In humans there’s a hereditary brain disease known as fatal familial insomnia, whose name says it all.”

“Trying to get by on little or no sleep has disastrous consequences. Close to eight thousand fatal car accidents in the United States every are caused by people falling asleep while driving, and if you count all crashes that result in someone being hospitalized, the annual number is close to 50,000. Moreover, lack of sleep (and the poor decision making that often occurs with it) has been implicated in some of the greatest disasters of the twentieth century, including Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the Challenger explosion.”

“Acknowledging that people might injure themselves and others through intentional sleep deprivation, the Guiness Book of Records will no longer consider attempts to break Randy Gardner’s 1994 sleep deprivation record (11 days 25 minutes). Hospitals should also take heed. Medical residents report a 130% increase in accidents and 500% more near misses when driving home after shifts lasting more than 24 hours. And those who have more than five of these extended shirts in a month have both a sixfold increase in fatigue-related patient deaths.”

“Recent evidence suggest that some animals can go extended periods with only minimal amounts of sleep: mother whales with newborn calves, and birds migrating across large expanses of open water (some birds have also learned to sleep while in flight!). But there are no known animal species, including humans, that do not need sleep. In fact, not one human has ever been identified who doesn’t need sleep. Even insects and roundworms have their own lowly versions of sleeping, becoming immobile and unresponsive for hours at the same time every day, even if kept in constant light or darkness, When these animals are deprived of their rest periods they make up for them at the first opportunity.”

“For it to have been maintained across half a billion years of evolution, sleep must serve some functions critical to our survival. Indeed, sleep serves some functions that by their very nature seem to require its presence. But other functions seem to have been almost casually assigned to sleep. These can be thought of as housekeeping functions, which have been assigned to sleep simply because it’s a convenient time to get them done. Think about the cleaning of large office buildings every night. They’re cleaned at night not because it’s the only time when it could be done, but because it’s more convenient for those who work in the buildings during the day and more efficient for the cleaning staff if no one else is there.”

What Your Nose Knows

March 3, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the first part of a title of an article by M.K. Hofer, F.S. Chen, and M. Schaller in Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 2020. The second part of the title is Affective, Cognitive, and Behavioral Responses to the Scent of Another Person. The abstract from the article follows:

People readily perceive and react to the body odors of other people, which creates a wide range of implications for affective, cognitive, and behavioral responses. In this article, we provide an overview of recent research in this area. We summarize the process by which people associate body odors with different kinds of interpersonally relevant information, briefly review two lines of research on responses to strangers’ body odors (research on olfactory cues and emotion, research on olfactory cues and impression formation), and review new research on the psychological consequences of smelling loved ones’ odors—including consequences for stress reduction and sleep enhancement. We conclude with a discussion of emerging research questions and methodological conclusions that may help guide future inquiry into the various ways that odors of other people influence one’s emotions, cognitions, relationships, and health.

Why Childhood Memories Are Lost

March 2, 2021

This post is based on an article in the Perspective section of the Health & Science section in the 16 Feb 2021 issue of the Washington Post by Missy Ryan titled, “ A mom looks at why childhood memories are lost.

The name for this childhood condition is infantile amnesia. However, recent research has revealed that the very early memories of childhood actually are quite good. But as the child matures the rapid development during early childhood of new neurons in the hippocampus interferes with memory retention, potentially by replacing synapses that are linked to specific memories. The instability associated with this rapid neuron growth and replacement is known as neurogenesis and means a decreased probability of being able to retrieve any single memory.

The article continues, “And while we can’t recall most early events, they still do appear to shape us in ways that remain poorly understood. The wrong takeaway is that it doesn’t really matter what your kids experience, because they’re going to forget it anyway.

Carole Peterson said that early experiences can have a lasting impact on behavioral reactions and attitudes. For example, someone may not remember an early experience with a dog but might still respond later with a fear of dogs. The same could be true for children subject to early abuse or deprivation.

The article continues, “For parents, the notion that the impact of painful events can transcend children’s memories is unsettling. But the inverse idea is a hopeful one—that the acts of love we show our young children every day, although they will be eventually lost to childhood amnesia, leave an enduring mark.”

In Conclusion

February 28, 2021

An enormous amount of material has been covered. The most important point to remember is the defining characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease are neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque, but there are many cases of autopsies of people where there are neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque who never demonstrated any of the cognitive or behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s. So neither these people nor their acquaintances were aware that they had Alzheimer’s. It is also important to realize that Alzheimer’s accounts for 60% to 80% of all cases of dementia.

The reason provided for the failure of the cognitive and behavioral symptoms to emerge in these people is that they had developed a cognitive reserve to protect themselves. Research has found that these people had used their brains and remained cognitively active throughout their lifetimes. They continued to learn new information and skills throughout their lifetimes, engaging in Kanheman’s System 2 processing for critical thinking. These points have been made, and will continue to be made, in healthymemory blog posts.

Of course, healthy living is also essential. Keep Sharp provides much more detailed information on eating and living a healthy lifestyle. It also provides information on treatments for dementia, and provides much useful information for caretakers as to how they too, can keep their health performing these demanding tasks. Financing and and the discussion of different facilities for dealing with dementia are covered. So, getting a copy of Keep Sharp is strongly recommended as HM fears that his posts have not done justice to this important book.

Meditation

February 27, 2021

This comes from Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s book, Keeping Sharp. Dr. Gupta writes, “I’m a big proponent of meditation. I practice it every day using a type known as analytical meditation. I picked up the habit after spending time with the Dalai Lama a few years ago at the Drepung Monastery in Mungod, India.

All my meditation insecurities immediately started to kick in once I was sitting with him cross-legged and trying to focus on my breathing with my eyes closed. After a few minutes I heard his deep, distinctive baritone voice: ‘Any questions?’

I looked up and saw his smiling face, starting to break into his characteristic head-bobbing laugh.

‘This is hard for me,’ I said.

‘Me, too!’ he exclaimed. ‘After doing daily for sixty years, it is still hard.’

‘I think you will like a type of analytical meditation,’ he told me. Instead of focusing on a chosen object, as in single-point meditation, he suggested I think about a problem I was trying to solve, a topic I may have read recently, or one of the philosophical areas from our previous discussions. He wanted me to separate the problem or issue from everything else by placing it in a large, clear bubble. With my eyes closed, I thought of something nagging at me—something I couldn’t quite solve. As I placed the physical embodiment of this problem into the bubble, several things started to happen very naturally.

The problem was now directly in front of me, floating weightlessly. In my mind, I could rotate it, spin it, or flip it upside down. It was an exercise to develop hyper focus. As the bubble was rising it was also disentangling itself from other attachments, such as subjective emotional considerations. I could visualize it as the problem isolated itself and came into clear view.

Too often, we allow unrelated emotional factors to blur the elegant and practical solutions right in front of us. It can be dispiriting and frustrating. Through analytical meditation, His Holiness told me, we can use logic and reason to more clearly identify the question at hand, separate it from irrelevant considerations, erase doubt, and brightly illuminate the answers. It was simple and sensible. Most important for me is that it worked.

I practice analytical meditation every day. The first two minutes, as I create my thought bubble and let it float above me, are still the hardest. After that, I reach what can best be described as that quintessential flow state, in which twenty to thirty minutes pass easily. I am more convinced than ever that even the most ardent skeptics could find success with analytical meditation.

Many post of meditation can be found by placing “meditation” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com.

How to Keep a Sharp Mind

February 26, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in the book Keep Sharp by Sanja Gupta. Dr. Gupta writes, “As a primer here are the five pillars of brain health: Move, Discover, Relax Nourish, Connect. These five pillars were first described by AARP based on existing scientific evidence that demonstrated these activities are fundamental to promoting good cognitive function across the lifespan. I recommend them to you to keep your mind sharp no matter your age. Here’s what they mean in no particular order:”

Move: “Exercise, both aerobic and nonaerobic (strength training), is not only good for the body, it’s even better for the brain. Every day before sitting down to write this book, I made sure to do something physical. A bike ride, push-ups, a swim, or run. If my writing ever starts to drag or not connect the way I want, I exercise my body as a way of stimulating my mind. Physical exertion, in fact, has thus far been the only thing we’ve scientifically documented to improve brain health and function. While we can record associations between, say, eating a healthy diet and having a healthier brain, the connection between physical fitness and brain fitness is clear, direct, and powerful. Movement can increase your brainpower by helping to increase, repair, and maintain cells, and it makes you more productive and more alert throughout the day. There is a nearly immediate measurable cause and effect going on that you’ll soon learn about, and it’s stunning. I have always followed the advised of my friend, actor, and fitness buff Matthew McConaughey: “Just try to break a sweat every day.”

Discover. A 2014 study from the University of Texas at Dallas tells us that picking up a new hobby, like painting or digital photography, or even learning a new piece of software or language can strengthen the brain. Doing something new can even be seeing a 3D movie, joining a new club, or even using your non dominant hand to brush your teeth.”

Relax. Relaxing is not solely a physical thing, your brain needs to chill out to. Scores of well designed studies routinely show that poor sleep can lead to impaired memory and that chronic stress can impair your ability tolerate and adapt to new situations. According to a group of researchers at MIT, something as commonplace (and stressful) as multitasking can slow your thinking. Stress is particularly subversive.

Nourish. The link between diet and brain health has long been anecdotal. But now we finally have evidence to show that consuming certain foods (e.g., cold-water fish, whole grains, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, fibrous whole fruits and vegetables) while limiting certain other foods (those high in sugar, saturated fat, and trans-fatty acids) can help avoid memory and brain decline, protect the brain against disease and maximize performance. Eating well is more important than ever now that we know our diet can affect our brain health (and overall health too). This conversation extends to the health of your microbial partners as well. The human being microbiome—the trillions of bacteria that make their home inside out intestines—have a profound role in the health and functioning of our brains, and it turns out that what we eat contributes to the microbiome’s physiology all the way up to our brains.

Connect. Okay, so if crossword puzzles get a B— for their ability to boost brain function, what gets an A? Connecting with others. In person and face-to-face. A 2015 study, among many others, tells us that that having a diverse social network, can improve our brain’s plasticity and help preserve our cognitive abilities. Interacting with others not only helps reduce stress and boosts our immune system; it can also decrease our risk of cognitive decline.

Should you want more information on these topics, your are encouraged to get Dr. Gupta’s book. He goes into great detail on these topics.

Secrets of SuperAgers

February 25, 2021

The title of this section is identical to the title of a section in Keep Sharp, and excellent book by Sanjay Gupta. Dr. Gupta writes:

While it would be great to have the brain of a SuperAger, someone who has an uncanny ability to maintain a youthful brain well into old age, most of us didn’t win the genetic lottery. A small, elite group of people age eighty and older have memories that are as sharp as those of people twenty to thirty years younger, theya show no age-related shrinkage in the size of the brain networks correlated with memory ability. And their outer cortexes, where memory, attention, and other thinking abilities take place, are remarkably thick—similar to people in their fifties. Scientists are trying to uncover their secrets to make us all SuperAgers, and they are learning it may not be totally genetically driven. What the science is increasingly showing is that we can have a huge impact in our brain’s fate with simple lifestyle choices. SuperaAgers often don’t act like old folks. They keep sharp with good habits.

The Dirty Dozen

February 23, 2021

The title of this section is identical to the title of a section in Keep Sharp, an excellent book by Sanjay Gupta. The title refers to a dozen common myths about the brain.

Myth # 1: The Brain Remains a Complete Mystery
Dr. Gupta writes, “While there is still a lot to learn, researchers have recently made great strides in understanding the brain. We know more about the connections between different parts of the brain and their relevance to how we think, move, and feel. We are better able to anatomically identify the areas of the brain responsible for depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and addiction. And we can better rehabilitate the brain after injury or stroke. The field of neuroscience is almost constantly brimming with new and exciting breakthroughs.”

Myth # 2: Older People are Doomed to Forget Things
Dr. Gupta writes, “There is a kernel of truth to this myth; some cognitive skills do decline as you age, especially if you don’t employ strategies to pay closer attention and help you remember. But whereas you may have been quicker at picking up a new language or memorizing a list of random words when you were a youngster, you’re more likely to be superior with vocabulary and a good judge of character when you’re an older adult. You’d score higher on tests of social communication and diplomacy, such as how to settle an argument or deal with a conflict. The other good news about aging is that we tend to improve over time at controlling our own emotions, weathering stress, and finding meaning in our lives.”

Myth #3: Dementia is an inevitable Consequence to Old Age
Dr. Gupta writes, “You should be able to dispel this myth on your own by now. Dementia is not a normal part of aging. Typical age-related changes in the brain are not the same as changes that are caused by disease. The former can be slowed down and the latter can be avoided.

Myth #4: Older People Can’t Learn New Things
Dr. Gupta writes, “Learning can happen at any age, especially when you get involved with cognitively stimulating activities like meeting new people or trying new hobbies. The combination of memory being dynamic and the possibility of growing new neurons (neurogenesis) means we can continue to change our brain’s information, capacity and learning strengths. While mastering some new skills, such as a second or third language, may take an older person longer, that doesn’t mean one cannot achieve the feat. Never say ‘never.’ Even people diagnosed with cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease included, can continue to learn new things.

Myth #5: You Must Master One Language before Learning Another
Dr. Gupta writes, Young children who learn English and a different language at the same time do not confuse the two, and even though they may take longer to waste both at the same time, that does not mean it’s a bad idea. Different areas of the brain do not go to battle so there’s no interference. Much to the contrary, kids who are bilingual have a better generalized knowledge of language structure as a whole. One of the reasons children seem to learn a new language more easily than adults is that they are less self-conscious.

Myth #6: A Person Who Has Memory Training Never Forgets
The term ‘use it or lose it’ Dr. Gupta writes,’applies to memory training in the same way it applies to maintaining the strength of a muscle or your overall physical health. This will be an ongoing practice the you’ll need to maintain, as with other long-term strategies.’

Myth #7: We Use Only 10% of Our Brains
Ask yourself where this number comes from? A little thinking will convince you that it was just pulled from someone’s keister. Dr. Gupta writes, “Experiments using positron-emission tomography (PET) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans show that much of the brain is engaged during even simple tasks, and injury to the small sections of brain called ‘eloquent areas’ can have profound consequences for language, movement, emotion, or sensory perception.

Remember that autopsy studies show that many people had physical signs of Alzheimer’s disease (such as amyloid plaques among neurons) in their brains even though they had no symptoms”

Myth #8: Male and Female Brains Differ in Ways That Dictate Learning Abilities and Intelligence.
Dr. Gupta writes, “Granted differences do exist in the brains of males and females that result in variations in brain function, but not to the extent that one is better ‘equipped’ than the other.” However he does note the Alzheimer’s strikes a disproportionate number of women compared to men. Two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are women, and it is not understood why this is the case or what causes women to be at higher risk.

Myth #9: A Crossword Puzzle a Day Can Keep the Brain Doctor Away
Although it is true that crossword puzzles are a cognitive exercise, by themselves they are insufficient. People like a simple solution like solve puzzles or play video games. But by themselves, these are insufficient. What is needed are lifestyle changes with emphasis on System 2 processes (critical thinking), growth mindsets, and healthy lifestyles.

Myth #10: You Are Dominated by Either your ‘Right’ or ‘Left” Brain.
Dr. Gupta writes, “Contrary to what you might have been taught in the past, your brain’s ‘two sides’—left and right—are intricately codependent.” This right brain left brain difference is mostly a matter of pop psychology.

Myth #11: You Have Only Five Senses
Dr. Gupta writes, “You can likely name all five senses: sight (ophthalmoception), smell (olfacoception), taste, (gustaoception), touch (tactiocepton), and hearing (audiocepton). But there are others with the ‘cept’ ending, which is Latin for take or receive. The other six senses are also processed in the brain and give us more data about the outside world:
*Proprioception: A sense of where your body parts are and what they are doing.
*Equilibrioception: A sense of balance, otherwise known as your internal GPS. This tells you if you’re sitting, standing, or lying down. It’s located in the inner ear (which is why problems in your inner can cause vertigo).
*Nociception: A sense of pain.
*Thermo(re)ception: A sense of temperature.
*Chronoception: A sense of the passage of time.
*Interoception: A sense of your internal needs, like hunger, thirst, needing to use the bathroom

Myth #12: You’re Born with All the Brain Cells You’ll Ever Have, You’re Brain is Hardwired, and BrainDamage is Always Permanent.
Dr. Gupta writes, “Neurogenesis has long been proven in various other animals, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that researchers began focusing exclusively on trying to demonstrate the birth of new brain cells in humans. In 1998, Swedish neurologist Peter Ericsson was among the first to publish a now widely cited report documenting that within our brains—in the hippocampus—there’s a reservoir of neural stem cells that are continually replenished and can differentiate into brain neurons.” The field of neuroplasticity studies the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections. The brain’s plasticity was first documented more than 100 years ago in William James’s 1890 book, The Principles of Psychology, in which the Harvard University psychologist writes: “Organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.”

Focus On Your Brain, And Everything Else Will Follow

February 22, 2021

The title of this section is identical to the title of a section in Keep Sharp, an excellent book by Sanjay Gupta. Dr. Gupta writes, “When I interviewed top experts in brain health from a wide variety of professionals and pioneers in the field, one individual’s statement stood out from the rest. It came from Dr. Dan Johnston, a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who has served as a physician and researcher in the army from the Pentagon to Iraq and recently cofounded BrainSpan, a company and laboratory that develops products and programs to help people measure, track, and improve brain function. As a health care provided, his company delivers its products mostly through physicians.

To say Johnston’s goal is to optimize brain health and performance is an understatement. He aims to shift the way we think about health by ‘starting at the top,’ as he put it. When it comes to health, many of us immediately turn to things like weight, cholesterol levels, risk for cancer, blood sugar levels, and heart health, and we forget about the brain. Those other things are seemingly easier to grasp because the brain is encased in bone and has a mystical quality. The medical establishment has typically interfaced with the brain only when it is diseased or damaged. But here’s the key point: when you put your brain first, everything else health-wise falls into place. The brain is ground zero. Don’t forget it is what makes you. Your heart ticks, yes, but it’s your brain that ultimately makes you tick and determines your quality of life. Without a healthy brain, you cannot even make healthy decisions. And with a stronger sense of confidence, a more solid financial future thanks to smart decisions, better relationships, more love in your life, and heightened overall happiness.”

Cognitive Reserve: The Good News

February 20, 2021

This post is based on an excellent new book by Sanja Gupta, Keep Sharp. Remember the defining characteristics of Alzheimers are amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60% to 80% of dementia cases. Yet there are many cases of autopsies done on people whose brains were wracked with amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, who never showed any cognitive or behavioral indications of cognitive decline. The explanation offered for these individuals is that they had built up a cognitive reserve that overcame the physiological symptoms. Studies that have been done to see what might have led to this cognitive reserve. They found that these people have been cognitively active throughout their lifetimes. They continued learning and engaging in activities that required active thinking. In the terminology of Nobel Lauerate Daniel Kahneman, they had engaged in System 2 processing that is used during learning and critical thinking. Our default mode of processing is System 1 which occurs virtually automatically and requires little, if any, cognitive effort.

For too many people learning declines, if not ceasing entirely, after the requirements and the skills required of a job or profession are fulfilled. For too many college students, they choose majors and courses that do not challenge their cognitive abilities. They’re goal in attending college is to earn a diploma, which they regard as the ticket to a middle class lifestyle. When HM taught at a university it seemed that most students had little, if any, interest in the course they were taking. They didn’t seem to have any true intellectual interest. HM sometimes felt that they were brain dead, while conceding that his instruction might not have been not very good. Sometimes he felt tempted to shine a light into their eyes to see if he could see a pupillary response. Fortunately, there were some students who were exceptions in that they really wanted to learn.

When HM views the pay for view movies offered on his cable outlet, he is dismayed about the poor quality of the films that are offered. Nothing that would engage System 2 Processing. Previous posts have predicted that Trump supporters will have a high incidence of Alzheimer’s. Trump lives by lies, lies that should be obvious to anyone doing any critical thinking. The big lie is the claim that he was cheated from winning the election. There have been many trials and tests, and the election has been given a clean bill of health. It is true that both slanted news media and social media exacerbated the problem, but that is no excuse for accepting this big lie. The same criticism goes to conspiracy theories like QAnon. Believing is simpler than thinking. But thinking is needed to keep in touch with reality and to find the truth.

So for your cognitive health and for the health of American democracy, please engage in System 2 processing. A life of cognitive growth is not only healthier, but it is more fulfilling.

Dementia

February 19, 2021

This post is based on an excellent new book by Sanja Gupta, Keep Sharp. Dr. Gupta writes, “The term dementia is a general one used to describe various symptoms and severities of cognitive decline, starting with mild cognitive impairment and moving to severe dementia. In other words, dementia is not a single disease itself; it encompasses several underlying diseases and brain disorders that impair memory, communication, and thinking. There are several types of dementia.

Vascular Dementia is caused by an impaired blood supply to the brain and may be brought on by a blood vessel blockage or damage leading to strokes or bleeding in the brain. Sometimes a person can show symptoms of both vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease at the same time. The location and amount of the brain damage determines whether dementia will result and how the individual’s thinking and physical functioning will be affected. It used to be that evidence of vascular dementia was used to exclude a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s (and vice versa). The practice is no longer used because the brain changes of Alzheimer’s and of vascular dementia commonly coexist. Only about 10% of brains from individuals with dementia show evidence of vascular dementia alone, and about half of all people with Alzheimer’s have signs of silent strokes.

Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB). This condition affects about one in every five patients with dementia. Proteins, called alpha-synuclein or Lewy bodies, will build up in certain parts of the brain responsible for cognition, movement, and overall behavior. As a result, patients have memory problems and symptoms similar to Parkinson’s. Visual hallucinations often occur early and can be an important part of the diagnosis.

Frontotemporal Lobar Dementia (FTLD). Also known as Pick’s disease, FTLD is a group of disorders triggered by gradual nerve cell loss in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes, resulting in changes in behavior (e.g., socially inappropriate responses, loss of empathy, lack of inhibition, poor judgment), difficulty speaking, and memory problems—though memory is usually spared in the early stages of this disease. The changes in personality and behavior are often the first signs. About 60% of people with FTLD are forty-five to sixty years old, but FTLD accounts for only 10% of dementia cases.

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia. It’s a progressive disease with symptoms that typically develop gradually before they intensify and become severe. In its late stages, the disease can make it difficult for a person to handle daily tasks, think clearly, control bodily movements, and live independently. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60% to 80% of dementia cases, affects one in nine Americans sixty-five and older, and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Nearly 6 million people are living with the disease. When some shows signs of having both Alzheimer’s and other dementias, it’s called mixed dementia.

Yet More Other Ways the Brain Begins to Break

February 18, 2021

This post is based on an excellent new book by Sanja Gupta, Keep Sharp. Dr. Gupta writes,”…chronic inflammation associated with aging (“inflamm-aging”) is at the center of virtually degenerative conditions, from those that increase one’s risk for dementia, such as diabetes and vascular diseases, to those that are directly brain related such as depression and Alzheimer’s disease. New research suggests that inflammation not only adds to disease processes in the brain that cause decline, but it also ignites those processes in the first place. One new study published in 2019 out of Johns Hopkins showed that chromic inflammation at midlife is linked to later cognitive and Alzheimer’s diseases.

To be sure, inflammation is the body’s defense system for taking care of potential insults and injury, but when that system is constantly deploying chemical substances and keying up the immune system, it becomes problematic. Studies have shown heightened levels of cytokines in the brains of individuals suffering from these and other degenerative brain disorders. Cytokines are the substances secreted by cells in the body that act like traffic signals for the inflammatory process, among other things What this means is that chronic inflammation likely plays a big role in brain decline. Today, new imaging technology is finally allowing us to see cells actively involved in producing inflammatory cytokines in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

Inflammation in the brain can also be directly related to those amyloid plaques and tau tangles, which again shows how interconnected and interrelated some of these “causes” for Alzheimer’s can be. Specialized “housekeeping” or “support staff” cells in the brain called microglia, or simply glia or glial cells, sometimes recognize these proteins as foreign debris and release inflammatory molecules to get rid of them. Elian cells are the brain’s unique immune cells and are related to types or white blood cels called macrophages. The resulting inflammation from the glial cells’ actions further impairs the working of neurons, thereby worsening, the disease process. But, once again, the exact clause-and-effect mechanism remains a mystery. We can’t say for sure that inflammation directly causes Alzheimer’s disease, though it’s likely to be a big part of the whole picture.

More Other Ways the Brain Begins to Break

February 17, 2021

This post is based on an excellent new book by Sanja Gupta, Keep Sharp. He writes, “Another big risk factor for dementia is the broad category of metabolic disorders. Nearly 35% of all U.S. adults and 50% of those sixty years of age or older are estimated to have what’s called metabolic syndrome, a combination of health conditions you don’t want to have, such as obesity, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, or a poor lipid profile (too much bad cholesterol, not enough good cholesterol). Since 2005, researchers have been finding correlations between diabetes and risk for Alzheimer’s disease, especially when the diabetes is not controlled and a person suffers from high blood sugar. Some have gone so far as to refer to Alzheimer’s disease as “type 3 diabetes,” because the disease often involves a disrupted relationship with insulin, the metabolic hormone needed to deliver sugar (glucose) into cells for use. Without insulin, cells cannot absorb glucose, which they need to produce energy and thrive. In type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease, a person cannot make insulin because the body has killed the specialized cells in the pancreas needed to make insulin. For this reason, those with type 1 diabetes have to inject themselves with insulin to make up for their lack of being able to produce the substance on their own. Type 2 diabetes is a disease characterized by chronic high blood sugar that causes dramatic surges in insulin so high that cells become desensitized to the hormone. Think of it as being in a room where the volume of the music is cranked up so high that you feel the need to cover your ears. That’s essentially what the cells do in the presence of too much insulin: They shut down the receptors that normally bind insulin and transport it inside. So while a person with type 2 diabetes can produce insulin, his or her cells don’t use it as well as they should (we call this insulin resistance) and sugar remains in the blood, where it doesn’t belong. Unlike Type 1 diabetes, which is triggered by a faulty immune system, type 2 diabetes is mostly caused by diet—too much sugar and processed carbohydrates that force more insulin to be pumped out of the pancreas. And what the science is now revealing is that Alzheimer’s disease could be another potential side effect of a sugary Western diet.

People with type 2 diabetes may be at least twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, and those with prediabetes or metabolic syndrome may have an increased risk for having predementia or mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Not all studies confirm the connection, but the evidence is mounting, forcing scientists to think differently and see broader relationships when it comes to risk for brain disease. The path from a poor diet to Alzheimer’s doesn’t appear to have to go through type 2 diabetes. In other words, studies are now showing that people with high blood sugar have a higher rate of cognitive decline than those with normal blood sugar. This was true in one particularly alarming longitudinal study following more than five thousand people over ten years. Their rate of cognitive decline, regardless of whether they were diabetic, hinged on blood sugar levels. The higher the blood sugar, the faster the decline.

At the root of type 3 diabetes is the phenomenon that neurons in the brain become unable to respond to insulin, which means that they can no longer absorb glucose, ultimately leading to cell starvation and death as insulin signaling becomes disrupted. Some researchers believe insulin deficiency or resistance is central to the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s disease and could be implicated in the formation of those infamous plaques.

If the risk for Alzheimer’s disease goes up with metabolic disorder, then it makes sense that the risk also rises with unhealthy weight gain that has metabolic consequences. One study of six thousand individuals aged forty to forty-five measured the size of their bellies. A few decades later they were evaluated to see who have developed dementia and how that related to their waist size at the start of the study. Those with the highest level of abdominal fat had an increased risk of dementia of almost three-fold in comparison to those with the lowest abdominal weight.”

Dr. Gupta writes, “More research is needed to understand which chemicals can result in brain abnormalities. I am not talking about well-known neurotoxins the can adversely affect brain function such as lead (from bacteria), and mercury. I am talking about exposure to chemicals we inadvertently encounter in our daily lives that could be inflicting harm slowly over time—for example certain pesticides, insecticides, substances in plastic, food additives, and chemicals in our general household goods.

In summer of 2019, I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to spend time with Paul Alan Cox, an ethnobotanist who studies the way indigenous people interact with their environment, particularly plants. His word took him to Guam, where he studied the native Chamorro people, who were known to be one hundred times more likely to develop a complex of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, compared to the rest of the world. Puzzled, he began putting his skills to work and created a consortium of scientists from a wide range of disciplines to investigate. What they found may one day be relevant to everyone. Because of their diet, which includes the fox bat as a delicacy, the Chamorro have been inadvertently boosting themselves with BMAA, a neurotoxin produced by blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). While the Chamorro take it in high doses, because it is concentrated in the fox bat, it turns out that we are all exposed to BMAA, which could be a significant risk for Alzheimer’s. The BMAA neurotoxin causes the proteins, such as amyloid and tau, to misfile and clump together in plaques and tangles. Because of this, Cox believes, as increasingly do other scientists, that amyloid and tau aren’t the cause of Alzheimer’s disease but a consequence of it. It’s a big idea, but even more important is Cox’s team’s ongoing investigation into how to treat Alzheimer’s disease in a remarkable simple way.

By replacing one of the building blocks of these proteins with an amino acid known as L-serine, they have shown that the misfiling of amyloid and tau doesn’t continue happening, effectively halting the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. So far, Cox’s team has demonstrated this only in ferret monkeys, but human trials are now underway at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Best part of all, L-serine is widely available
(in supplement form, usually a capsule), seems to have hardly any side effects, and costs just a few dollars. Cox will be the first to tell you that it is not a cure, meaning it won’t reverse cognitive decline that has already occurred. Remember, however, that Alzheimer’s disease typically starts in the brain long before someone develops symptoms. If a simple treatment could be given during this early stage, it could prevent someone from developing the symptoms in the first place. It’s exciting work and further deflates the beta-amyloid hypothesis, providing more evidence that amyloid plaques could be a symptom of the disease, not the source.

Other Ways the Brain Begins to Break

February 16, 2021

This post is based on an excellent new book by Sanja Gupta, Keep Sharp. Dr. Gupta writes, “Prions are increasingly becoming part of the narrative around plaques and tangles. Prions are another type of protein found in the brain that can trigger other proteins (like beta-amyloid and tau) to fold abnormally. A few diseases are attributed to prions, which are associated with infections and are universally fatal. The most common form of prion disease in humans is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (a.k.a. “mad cow disease) from infected meat products. Some researchers are looking into whether prion-like forms of both amyloid and tau spread through the brain, forcing proteins to become misfiled and knotted up, setting the stage for Alzheimer’s disease.”

Dr. Gupta writes, “The suggestion is that blood flow abnormalities in the brain may be important in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Decreased blood flow to the brain, a condition called hypoperfusion, has long been associated as a precursor to the buildup of plaques and tangles. It is likely that changes in blood flow create a crisis among neurons and their support staff called glib, leading to a degeneration of these cells and subsequent cognitive impairment. Remember that the brain is a highly vascular organ; it demands a lot from the circulatory system to continually deliver nutrients and oxygen. Any factor—from smoking to high cholesterol levels—that affects the blood flow system in the brain has a significant impact on its function and risk for decline.

In addition, the vascular hypothesis for Alzheimer’s disease may explain why people who have a history of high blood pressure or have had a stroke are more vulnerable to developing the disease. High blood pressure can cause microscopic damage in the arteries leading to the brain, which can further reduce blood flow and oxygenation. Brain cells need energy in the form of glucose and oxygen. When energy to the active brain is compromised by lack of adequate blood flow, trouble looms. Recent research has also shown that blood flow to the brain is decreased when the blood-brain barrier, a semipermeable barrier in the brain’s capillaries, breaks down. Because the brain is so precious, it is protected not only by the skull and a bath of cerebrospinal fluid; the blood-brain barrier also effectively walls off the brain from the body’s blood supply. When working properly, this wall lets oxygen, glucose, and other necessary substances across the barrier but stops larger, and sometimes more toxic, molecules from getting into the brain. Gaps can form in this barrier, however, thereby letting harmful molecules enter the brain and accumulate. The result is a gradual swelling of the brain, which increases the pressure inside the cranium and inhibits blood flow to the brain. And, once again, with less oxygenated blood reaching the brain, the crisis in neurons and glia is ignited. In turn, this causes more brain swelling, lesions, and the formation of beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles. Recent studies have shown the hippocampus is especially vulnerable to this “leaky blood-brain barrier” condition, and as it loses its protective barrier, toxic substances from the blood vessels can penetrate the neurons and worsen an individual’s memory loss and cognitive impairment.

Regarding infections earlier in life setting the stage for Alzheimer’s disease decades later, Dr. Gupta writes, “We have known for some time that infection by various pathogens can have neurological effects, from Lyme disease cause by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi to herpes simplex virus, Zika, syphilis, rabies, and even gum disease. A hypothesis is now developing among scientists that serious forms of neurodegenerative decline can stem from the body’s reaction to these infections. This remains a hotly debated topic because we don’t know if the germ’s presence is causing or accelerating the disease or is merely a consequence of it. But the theory is plausible enough to attract the attention of top scientists.

A provocative study from Harvard researchers led by the late Dr. Robert D. Moir in 2016 proposed that infections, including mild ones that barely produce symptoms, fire up the immune system in the brain and leave a debris trail that is the hallmark’s of Alzheimer’s. The theory: a virus, bacterium, or fungus sneaks past the blood-brain barrier (which does become leaky as we age) and triggers the brain’s self-defense system. To combat the intruder, the brain makes beta-amyloid to act as a kind of sticky web to trap the invader. The beta-amyloid is in fact an antimicrobial peptide—basically, a protein that the immune system creates to physically trap a germ. So, what’s left is the web plaque that we see in the brains with Alzheimer’s disease.”

Dr. Gupta writes, “Repeated blows to the head can do lasting damage. Dr. Gary Small, founding director of the UCLA Memory Clinic, professor of psychiatry, and the director of the UCLA Center on Aging, as well as an expert for the Global Council on Brain Health, was the doctor who diagnosed Tony Dorset’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE—there have been many healthy memory blogs on this topic). Dr. Small’s group’s finding was among the first to link multiple concussions to damaging tau buildup. Dorsett had suffered from depression and memory loss for many years and went to UCLA for answers. He wanted to know whether there could be a connection between all the concussions he endured in the 1970s and 1980s playing football and the debilitating symptoms he suffered later in life. Since Dorsett’s diagnosis, scores of other former football players have been diagnosed with CTE, and lawsuits have been filed against the National Football League. Gary Small has been a pioneer in brain medicine for decades, and I’ve had the opportunity to consult with him on his research and findings. You’ll read more about his top strategies to keep sharp in the upcoming posts.”

The Hallmarks of Alzheimer’s Disease

February 15, 2021

In Keep Sharp Dr. Gupta writes, “Today, more than one hundred years later (after Dr. Alzheimer identified the disease named after himself), amyloid plaques, along with neurofibrillary tangles remain the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Not surprisingly, the lions share of research has been for treatments to eliminate or prevent these substances. The concept is that amyloid plaques accumulate between nerve cells and tangles, primarily consisting of tau protein, are twisted insoluble fibers found inside brain cells. (Beta-amyloid was discovered in 1984, with tau identified two years later. Tau protein is a microscopic component of brain cells that is essential to their stability and survival).

Dr. Gupta writes, “Here’s the tricky part: We need beta-amyloid and tau in our brains. Healthy versions of these proteins are part of healthy brain biology: They help supply food to brain cells. It’s when beta-amyloid and tau become damaged, misfolding into sticky clumps, that problems arise. The amyloid fibrils turn rogue when they morph into watertight rope-like structures containing proteins that interlock like the teeth of a zipper. These tight molecular zippers become sealed and difficult to pry apart, gumming up to form dangerous plaques. According to the amyloid cascade hypothesis, it is the accumulation of plaques around brain cells that cause Alzheimer’s disease, even though scientists aren’t sure how or why this happens. Drugs to reduce beta-amyloid in the human brain have not succeeded as expected. A string of clinical failures based on this hypothesis has punched lots of holes into the idea that beta-amyloid tells the whole story. Some people whose brain is riddled with plaques show no signs of cognitive decline. These brains are often found to be filled with plaques on autopsy, and yet the patients died cognitively intact. This occurrence is accounted for by having a cognitive reserve. In truth we don’t really know whether the plaques are an effect rather than a cause of Alzheimer’s.

In the Alzheimer’s world, a ‘unicorn’ is when the brain autopsy of someone with dementia only shows damage from plaques and tangles. The point is that rarely does a diseased brain show only one form of damage: lots of changes in a brain can result in a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. The complexity of this disease has forced scientists to rethink their entire approach and search for a cure. People likely have a mix of different dementias for which they need a mix of different treatments.”

In 2014 Dr. Rudy Tanzi demonstrated ‘Alzheimer in a dish.’ ‘He and his team took mini-human brain organoids—clumps of brain cells used to develop minibrains—grew them in a petri dish, inserted Alzheimer genes, and then watched what happened. This is the interplay between the plaques and tangles and then what followed: neuroinflammation, then significant nerve cell death. His metaphor is frightening but makes the point: ‘Amyloid plaques are the match, tangles are the brushfires, and neuroinflammation is the forest fire,’ he told me. Tanzi believes the brain’s immune system tries to extinguish the brushfires by sending a surge of inflammatory cells. This neuroinflammation then kills up to one hundred times more nerve cells, laying ground for future dementia.”

Retrieval

February 14, 2021

“This post is based on an excellent new book by Sanja, Gupta, Keep Sharp. Dr. Gupta
writes, “When you call up a memory, you first fetch the information at an unconscious level and willfully drop it into your conscious mind. Most people see themselves as having either a “good” or a “bad” memory, but the truth is we each are fairly adept at remembering some types of things and not so great at remembering others. If you struggle with remembering, say, people’s names and you’re not suffering from a physical disease or dementia, it’s usually not the failing of your entire memory system. It could be a lack of attention at the time you were being introduced and first heard the person’s name. It could also be an inefficient retrieval system. In those cases, people often feel like the name is “on the tip of their tongue.” Sometimes that can easily be rectified by sharpening you memory skills for that particular weakness encoding or retrieval. Many memory champions started off believing they had a poor memory until they provide time practicing techniques focusing on a ver specific component of memory.”

“For some people, however, memory problems do tend to increase as they get older. Memory speed and accuracy naturally begin to slip in our twenties, especially our working memory that holds information temporarily in the mind so we can get through the day and make good decisions. But as I reiterate throughout this book, memory problems are not inevitable with age. There are things we can do to maintain, enhance, and sharpen our abilities to remember, retain, and retrieve that information as long as we live. Now let’s turn to some of the terminology you’ll need going forward. How is cognitive decline defined? What is considered normal and abnormal? Is it reversible?”

Dr. Gupta does not provide specific memory techniques, but the healthymemory blog does. Enter, do not click, healthymemory.wordpress.com. Then scroll down to categories and select Mnemonic Techniques. Then start scrolling down this category. It will be quite some time before you reach specific techniques, but you still should encounter many interesting posts.

Short versus Long-Term Memory (Storage)

February 13, 2021

This post is based on an excellent new book by Sanja Gupta, Keep Sharp. He writes, “It’s common knowledge that our memories work at two different levels: short-term memory and long-term memory. But prior to these stages there is a sensory stage that lasts a fraction of a second. During this initial stage, perception of an experience gets logged into the brain as incoming information and is held momentarily. Then the sensations moves into short-term memory. Most of us can hold only about seven items, sometimes less, in short-term memory. Repeating the number to yourself helps keep the information in short-term memory. To learn information so that you can recall it later, you must transfer it from short-term to long-term memory. Short-term memory is closely linked to the function of the hippocampus, while long-term memory is closely linked to functions of the outer layer of the brain, the cortex.

Long-term memory includes all the information that you really know and can recall. It’s how you can remember events from last week, last year, or your childhood. Once information becomes part of long-term memory, you can have access to it for a long time. Unlike sensory and short-term memory, which are limited and decay rapidly, long-term memory allows us to store limited amounts of information indefinitely. Certain things can interrupt the process of moving a memory to long term memory. For example, alcohol puts a glitch in the process. For someone who is intoxicated, the encoding into long-term memory often does not occur very well, or at all. And that is why, days later, someone may have a hard time remembering something that was so vivid earlier when the memory was still in short-term storage. In these cases, they can’t retrieve the memory from the long-term bucket because it was never there in the first place. Sleep deprivation can also disrupt the movement of memories from short to long term. During sleep, the body consolidates memories.

In long-term memory memories can be available but not accessible at one time, but they may become accessible later. If search is continued for a reasonable amount of time, the information may remain inaccessible. However, at some later time while one’s attention is engaged elsewhere, these memories might pop into memory.”

Simulations have been done using age to determine accessibility. With older people so much information has been stored, that it can take considerable time to access the memory. This is one reason why seniors might appear to be slow processors. The slowing is caused by the magnitude of the information. This is why HM tells seniors never to apologize for so-called “senior moments,” as these moments are largely a function of the volume of information being searched. It is hoped that this greater amount of information will also indicate a larger degree of wisdom.

Building a Memory (Encoding)

February 12, 2021

This post is based on an excellent new book by Sanja Gupta, Keep Sharp. Dr. Gupta writes, Creating a memory starts with encoding, which begins with your perception of an experience using your senses. Think about your memory of meeting someone you fell in love with, perhaps even married. In that first meeting, your eyes, ears, and nose took note of than person’s physical features, voice sounds, and personal scent. Maybe you even touched this person. All of these separate sensations traveled to the hippocampus, the area of the brain that integrates these perceptions or impressions as they were happening into one single experience—in this case, the experience of the individual.

Continuing, While the function of memory is facilitated in areas throughout the brain, the hippocampus is the brain’s memory center. With the help of the frontal cortex, the hippocampus takes the helm to analyze these various sensory inputs and evaluate whether they are worth remembering. It’s important to understand how memory and learning occur at a biochemical level, which will help you grasp why the strategies Dr. Gupta suggests will work for you. All of the analyzing and filtering of our perceptions occur using the brain’s language of electricity and chemical messengers. Nerve cells connect with other cells at the synapse. Here, electrical pulses carrying messages jump across super small spaces between cells, which trigger the release of chemical messengers names neurotransmitters. Examples of common neurotransmitters are dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine. When they move across these gaps between cells, they attach themselves to neighboring cells. A typical brain has trillions of synapses. The segments of the brain cells that receive these electrical impulses are called dendrites, which means “treelike” because they are short branched extensions of a nerve cell that reach out to nearby brain cells.

The attachments between brain cells are incredibly dynamic in nature. In other words, they are not fixed like a line of cable. They change and grow (or shrink) continually. Working together in a network, brain cells organize themselves into specialized groups to serve in different kinds of information processing. When one brain cell sends signals to another, the synapse between the two strengthens. The more often a particular signal is sent between them, the stronger the connection grows. This provides the basis for “practice makes perfect.” Every time you experience something new, your brain slightly rewires to accommodate that new experience. Novel experiences and learning cause new dendrites to form, whereas repeated behavior and learning cause existing dendrites to become more entrenched. The creation of new dendrites, even weak ones, is called plasticity. It is this plasticity that can help your brain rewire itself if it is ever damaged. It is also the core ingredient for resilience, vital for building a better brain. So, as you navigate the world and learn new things, changes happen at the synapse and dendrites—more connections are generated, while some may be weakened. The brain perpetually organizes and reorganizes itself in response to your experiences, your education, the challenges you face, and the memories you make.

You have to pay attention to properly encode a memory. You must have awareness of what you’re experiencing. Because you cannot pay attention to everything you encounter, a lot of potential stimuli are filtered out. Only select stimuli reach your conscious awareness. How you pay attention to incoming data may be the most important factor in how much of that information you remember.

Of course we cannot remember everything, so there’s a group of neurons that are charged with helping the brain to forget, and that are most active at night during sleep when the brain is reorganizing itself and preparing for the next day of incoming information. Scientists discovered these “forgetting” neurons in 2019, which helps us further understand the importance of sleep—and the merits of forgetting.

Don’t Confuse Memory with Memorizing

February 11, 2021

Dr. Sanja Gupta writes this in his book Keep Sharp. “People tend to view memory as a warehouse where we keep our knowledge when we are not using it. Dr. Gupta says that this metaphor is not correct because memory is not static like a physical building. Our memories are constantly changing as we take in fresh information and interpret it. (Readers of the healthymemory blog should know that the purpose of memory is for time travel.) We learn and have experiences and they are stored in our memories in the brain. We use this to predict what will happen in the future so we can use out memories to consider the best courses of action (or the answer to a test). We can also use our memories to relive pleasant experiences. By retrieving the wrong memories we can also experience stress.”

Dr. Gupta writes, “The function of our memory is more about helping to guide and maintain a cohesive life narrative that fits with who we are while also constantly changing with new experiences. This dynamism is partly why it’s also true that our memories are not an accurate, objective record of the past. They can be contaminated or changed fairly easily, even in people who have no problems with their memory. Years ago, I did a story about Bugs Bunny and Disney World. It was based on research by psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus, in which she presented advertisements featuring the character to visitors at a Disney theme park. Some of the ads showed Bugs Bunny, and the people who saw those ads were often convinced they had in fact met Bugs Bunny in the Disney park and even shook hands with him. They would sometimes describe a carrot in his mouth, his floppy ears and things he may have said, like, “What’s up, Doc?” The problem is that Bugs Buddy is a Warner Bros. character and would never be seen in a Disney park. Lotus demonstrated just how easily memories can be implanted or manipulated.” Dr. Loftus has done much research in this area and has demonstrated memories can be altered, or created, quite easily.

Dr. Gupta continues, “Now consider what happens as you read an article in a magazine, in a newspaper, or online. As you digest the new information, you’re using information you’ve already tucked in your memory. The new information also evokes certain ingrained beliefs, values, and ideas that are unique to you and help you interpret the information, make sense of it, fit it into your worldview, and then decide whether you will retain it(while altering previously stored information) or let it be forgotten. Thus, as you read the article, your memory actually changes by both adding new information with older, (now slightly modified information) or let it be forgotten. Thus, as you read the article, your memory actually changes by both adding new information and finding a new place to put that information. At the same time, you’re giving yourself a different way to store the new information with older, now slightly modified information. It’s complicated, and probably not at all how your previously thought about your memory. But it’s important to know that memory is fundamentally a learning process—the result of constantly interpreting and analyzing incoming information. And every time you use your memory, you change it. This is important, When we talk about improving or preserving memory, we need to first understand what it is, and what it represents to any given person.”
Dr. Gupta continuing further, “Because memory calls on an expansively distributed network and coordinates those interactions through slow-frequency thrumming rhythms called theta waves, neuroscientists are finding ways to stimulate key regions in the brain with noninvasive electric current to physically synchronize neural circuits, akin to an orchestra tuning the strings section. This kind of research and resulting potential therapy is in its infancy, but the belief is that one day we may be able to tune a seventy-year-old’s memory into that of someone decades younger”

Dr. Gupta continuing still further, “If I asked you to recall what you had for dinner last night, an image might come to mind. Perhaps it was a plateful of chicken marsala or a bowl of chili. The memory was not sitting in some neural alleyway waiting to be retrieved. The mental picture of your dinner was the outcome of an astoundingly intricate choreography of processes scattered throughout the brain that involved multiple neural networks. Construction of a memory is about reassembling different memory “snapshots” or impressions from a lattice-like pattern of cells found throughout the brain. In other words, your memory is not a single system—it’s comprised of a network of systems, each playing a unique role in creating, storing, and recalling. When your brain processes information normally, all of these systems work together in synchronicity to provide cohesive thought. Single memories therefore are the result of a complex construction.”

Brainy Facts

February 10, 2021

This post is taken from Keep Sharp by Sanjay Gupta.

The typical human brain comprises about 2 to 2.5 % of the body’s total weight.


Your brain is roughly 73% water (same for your heart), and that is why it takes only 2% dehydration to affect your attention, memory, and other cognitive skills, so drinking just a few ounces of water can reverse that.


Your brain weighs a little over three pounds. Sixty% of the dry weight is fat, making the brain the fattiest organ in the body.


All brain cells are not alike. There are many different types of neurons in the brain, each serving an important function.


The brain is the last organ to mature. As any parent can attest, children’s and teenagers’ brains are not fully formed, which why they take to risky behaviors and can have a harder time regulating their emotions. It isn’t until about the age of twenty-five that the human brain reaches maturity.


Brain information can travel faster than some race cars, up to more than 250 miles per hour.


Your brain generates enough electricity to power a low-wattage LED light.


The average brain is believed to generate tens of thousands of thoughts per day, give or take.


Every minute, 750 to 1,000 millimeters of blood courses through the brain. This is enough to fill a wine bottle and then some. Every minute!


Your brain can process a visual image in less time than it takes for you to blink.


The hippocampus, the part of the brain considered the memory center, has been documented to be significantly larger in people whose jobs have high cognitive demands, compared to the average person. London cab drivers, for instance, get a mental workout while navigating London’s 25,000 streets. However, those memory centers may be getting smaller because of GPS.


Your brain starts slowing down by the surprisingly young age of twenty-four, right before maximum maturity, but it peaks for different cognitive skills at different ages. No matter how old you are, you’re likely still getting better at some things. An extreme case is vocabulary skills, which may peak as late as the early seventies.

KEEP SHARP

February 9, 2021

The title to this post is identical to the title of an excellent new book by Sanja, Gupta, MD, who is somebody you have likely seen on TV. The subtitle to the book is Build a Better Brain at Any Age. He writes in the introduction, “The brain can be continuously and consistently enriched throughout your life no matter your age or access to resources.” He writes, “I know many people who are crushed by events in the news, while others are emboldened and undaunted. Your brain can be strengthened by what you experience, like a good workout, to it can be bettered and defeated. What separates these two camps of people? The answer is resilience. A resilient brain can withstand ongoing trauma, think differently, stave off brain-related illnesses including depression, and retain cognitive memory for peak performance.

Regarding genetics, he writes, “If a certain disease runs in your family, you can still stack the deck in your favor and avoid that fate. Our everyday experiences, including what we eat, how much we exercise, and with whom we socialize, what challenges we face, how well we sleep, and what we do to reduce stress and learn, factor much more into our brain health and overall wellness than we can imagine. A new study in 2018 published in the journal Genetics, revealed that the person we marry factors greater in our longevity than our genetic inheritance does. And by a long shot! Why? Because it turns out that our lifestyle habits weigh heavily into our decisions around marriage—much more so than than most other decisions in our lives. The researchers, who also analyzed birth and death dates of nearly 55 million family trees that encompassed 406 million people who were born from the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, found that genes accounted for well under 7% of people’s life span versus the 20 to 30% of most previous estimates. That means that over 90% of our health and longevity is in our own hands. “

Continuing, “When I gather all the highlights from my research colleagues at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in 2019, one fact stood out: Clean living can slash your risk of developing a serious mind-destroying disorder, including Alzheimer’s, even if you carry genetic risk factors. No matter what your DNA says, a good diet, regular exercise, not smoking, limiting alcohol, and some other surprising lifestyle decisions, can change that destiny. A few years ago, I experienced firsthand that healthy living could help someone overcome genetic risk for heart disease. Now we know the same is true for dementia, So worry less about your genes and stop using them as an excuse. Instead focus on the things you get to choose, big and small, day in and day out.”

I strongly recommend this book. Dr. Gupta is a physician. HM is a Ph.D psychologist, but he is not a clinician HM does not have disagreements with Dr. Gupta. However, being a physician Dr. Gupta provides a much larger perspective.

Dr. Gupta does not provide specific memory techniques, but the healthymemory blog does. Go to the home page, healthymemory.wordpress.com, and scroll down to categories and select Mnemonic Techniques. Then start scrolling down this category. It will be quite some time before you reach specific techniques, but you still should encounter many interesting posts.

A NUMBNESS OVER DEATHS

February 7, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by William Wan and Brittany Shamas in the Health & Science section in the19 January 2021 issue of The Washington Post. The Subtitle is “Something happens in the brain when fatalities reach such high numbers in the pandemic, psychologists say.

In 1994, hundreds of thousands in Rwanda were murdered in the space of weeks by soldiers and militias from a rival ethnic group. In response, the United States and much of the world largely shrugged. President Bill Clinton later called his administrations’s failure to act one of his greatest regrets.

Psychologist Paul Slovic puzzled by that apathy began conducting experiments to better understand people’s reaction to mass suffering and death, What he found was troubling. In one study, his researchers showed people a picture of a 7-year-old girl dying of starvation and asked for donations to help her. He showed another group of two starving children, then even larger sets of children. Slovak found that people’s distress didn’t grow with the number of children in danger, but often shrank.

In an interview, Slovic said, “in fact, the more who die, sometimes the less we care. In greater numbers, death becomes impersonal, and people feel increasingly helpless that their actions can have any effect. Statistics are human beings with tears dried off, and that’s dangerous because we need tears to motivate us.”

With the coronavirus—the death toll substantially spreading 300,000 in the United States—many of our strongest impulses are working against us, experts say. “Think about the disasters that have captured our national attention…A hurricane like Katrina hits. News crews show the devastation and people open their wallets,” said Lori Peek, who directs the National Hazards Center at the University of Colorado. “But this pandemic isn’t a camera-ready event like that.”

Instead of a single discrete event—like the twin towers collapsing on Sept. 11, 2001—the pandemic has unfolded over as an invisible, slow-creeping, chronic hazard. Over time, our brains gradually tune out the danger.

Peek likened the effect to heat waves, which kill more people in America than all other natural disasters combined. “But you never hear that much about heat waves because it’s gradual. You don’t see people trapped on rooftops like Katrina. You don’t have homes going up in flames like in wildfires.”

The following section, Death Up Close, is taken verbatim from the article.
“Without visual, physical manifestations of deaths, the alarm bells in our heads fail to ring, the experts said. Because we fail to see their connection to us—including our role in preventing their growing numbers.

This is what death in the pandemic looks like up close: Patients often grow ashen as their body struggles for nutrients. Their skin becomes mottled with splotches of reddish purple as their heart pumps less and less blood to parts of the body that need it.

Often, the room is eerily empty, with nurses and doctors trying to minimize risk of infection. The only constant is the low steady hum of an oxygen compressor piping air to the patient’s nostrils.

Amid the silent void, the patients’ dying breaths become magnified.

‘The hardest thing about it is how alone they are in the end,’ says Schaum, a nurse with Hospice & Community Care in Lancaster.

Schaum props up the feet of dying patients to take the pressure off their heels. She uses a gel to moisten their mouths, which grow uncomfortable once they stop eating or drinking.

Even those interactions are limited: Schaum is supposed to keep direct contact to 10 to 15 minutes during her daily patient check-ins. So, from six feet away she talks to them as much as possible, even when they are unresponsive, hoping they sense her presence.

‘You do everything you can to make sure they don’t feel alone,’ she said. ‘But it’s hard to convey just how isolated it is.’

Sometimes, family members are present, allowed to visit during a patient’s final moments. But many patients are so elderly that their children fall within high-risk age groups.

In recent days, Schaum has been helping the adult children of a woman in her 80s decide whether they can safely see her. ‘There’s so much guilt, anger, hopelessness, and helplessness.’

When families are unable to be there, Laura Carey, a social world for Hospice & Community Care, sometimes sits with covid-19 patients during their last moments.

It’s frustrating, Carey said, trying to hold a patient’s hand while layered in goggles, masks, face shield, gloves and gown—unable to make skin-to-skin contact normally used to reassure the dying.

As patients’ hands grow cold and lose sensation, Carey often places her hand on their shoulder or head to make sure they know someone is there. She tells patients she has talked with their family and how much they are loved.

She sits beside them as their breath slows and becomes increasingly shallow and irregular, until it stops.

‘There’s something so incredibly sacred and powerful about that moment,’ Carey said. ‘If only others could experience it, maybe things would be different.’”

HM is Back!

February 6, 2021

Yes, he finally got another Mac. However, getting a Mac is a small problem. Once you get the Mac you need to set it up, which is no small matter. As his previous Mac was ten years old, the current Mac has change significantly. The Mac has been sold as being intuitively obvious. That has never been the case. He remember when he worked for a nonprofit with fellow engineers and scientists. MacIntosh computers had been placed in a room and we scientists and engineer had to try to use them. We failed. There was nothing obvious about the interface, and the icons had little meaning. Fortunately one person in the room had had experience with an expensive predecessor of the MacIntosh, the Lisa computer (named after Job’s illegitimate daughter).

The MacIntosh ended up being successful, but not because of the much lauded icons.
In the old days you could not cursor over the icon to learn its meaning, as it was supposed to be obvious, which it wasn’t. The true reason for the success of the MacIntosh, is that it required the user to recognize the command, unlike Microsoft commands that required the user retrieve from her memory the commands. Microsoft could have solved this problem with menus.

Now, Apple has provided Apple Geniuses, who are truly geniuses and can assist users with these wonderful machines. In addition, HM is blessed with a friend who is not only a Apple genius, but a genius in a variety of other areas also. It appears that HM will be dealing with both sorts of geniuses, as there is still an enormous amount for him to learn.

But HM thinks he as learned enough to begin posting additional articles, this being the first.

MacIntosh Problems

February 2, 2021

HM needs to get a new Mac. That, plus weather problems, means there will be a delay in future posts.

Four Things Worth Knowing About Empathy

February 1, 2021

This post is based on an article titled, “Five things worth knowing about empathy” by Katherine Ellison in the Health & Science section in the 19 January 2021 issue of The Washington Post. The title has not been changed because the fifth thing is already known and is not worth writing about.

The first is empathy is primitive. Evidence of the basic sort of empathy—“emotional contagion,” to the sharing of another being’s emotions has been found in many species, suggesting it’s innate in humans. Abundant evidence exists for “emotional contagion” in animals. Rats that watch other rats suffer electric shocks show their shared fear by freezing in place. Rats will even avoid pressing a lever dispensing a sugar pellet if it means another rat won’t get shocked, in what scientists suggest is an effort to avoid that shared fear and pain. That vicarious sense of pain is evident in humans as well: Even newborn infants will cry reflexively on hearing another infant cry.

Famed primatologist Frans de Waal has said, “We are biologically programmed to have empathy. It’s something we can’t suppress. Empathy evolved because of all the ways it served our ancestor, de Waal argued in an article on the evolution of empathy in the 2008 Annual Review of Psychology. The ability to feel others feelings helps parents be more sensitive to the needs of their children, increasing the chance that their genes will endure. This basic sense of empathy also inspires us to take care of friends and relatives, encouraging cooperation that helps out tribe survive.

The second is that empathy isn’t automatic. Despite its deep and ancient roots, the quality of human empathy can vary, depending on the context. Some studies have suggested that we get less skillful at empathy as adulthood progresses according to the German psychologists Michaela Reedier and Elisabeth Blanke in the 2020 Annual Review of Developmental Psychology.

That may be because empathy demands cognitive skills such as paying attention, processing information and holding that information in memory, all resources that can become scarcer with age. Older adults can perform equally well in those skills, however, when a topic of conversation is more relevant or pleasant for them—in other words, when they care more.

In a 2013 study, researchers in Hong Kong tested 49 younger people (ages 15 to 28) and 49 older people (ages 60 to 83) on their ability to read expressions of emotions on oder people’s faces. The younger participants, as was expected, were more skillful overall, but the older ones caught up if they were told in advance that the people they were observing “share a lot of common interests with you.”

Distinguished psychologist Steven Pinker has written that the nature of empathy also appears to have changed throughout human history, that empathy has expanded over the past several centuries, due to trends such as increasing literacy and global commerce that make people more interdependent.
The third point is empathy is often selfish. Declining modern rates of empathy are often cited by those complaining about the alleged selfishness of millennials, whom one (at least) writer dubbed the “Me Me Me generation.” Yet empathy itself tends to be selfish. It’s usually directed toward those we care about the most—reflecting those evolutionary drives to care for children, relatives and others similar to ourselves.

Researchers have illustrated this point by studying contagious yawning in humans, which occurs at a much higher rate in response to kin than to strangers. In our polarized times, the innate drive to empathize more with one’s in-group may worsen political divisions. In a 2019 study, a team of U.S. researchers randomly assigned 1,232 people to read one of two versions of an article describing a college campus protest agains an inflammatory political speech. In both versions, the protest turns violent and police are called, but in one version the speaker is criticizing Democrats, while in the other the target is Republicans. The subjects were more likely to want to stop the speech when the speaker was attacking their own party—but only if the subjects scored high on a measure of empathy.

The fourth point is that empathy can be learned, and this is by far the most important point. Jamil Zaki, and there have been previous healthymemory posts on this psychologist, writes that the first step is believing that empathy is a skill that can be improved. Zaki has found that people who believe they can “grow” their empathy will spend more effort expending empathy in challenging situations. Other researchers have found that a meditation practice can also help enhance empathy, or at least improve people’s accuracy at reading emotions from facial expressions.

Through the years, studies have also found that readers of fiction tend to be more skilled in empathy. In a 2009 study, researchers showed that people exposed to fiction perform better on an empathy test. The idea is that reading about other people helps us extend empathy to a wider circle.

Overcoming Our Reptilian Brain

January 31, 2021

We need to realize that at the base of our brain is the brain of a reptile. Our brains have grown from this base to a sophisticated cerebrum and other components that are responsible for human cognition from which modern cultures have developed. The reptilian brain takes inputs from its sensors and classifies other creatures as conspecifics (meaning the same) or as creatures to be attacked or feared.

We are in the midst of an astounding occurrence. There appears to be the phenomenon of many human beings not using their cerebrums and higher capabilities, but have regressed to their reptilian base component. White Supremacists and Nazis regard non-whites as people to be feared and, accordingly, attacked. This provides the basis of support for Donald Trump, and, unfortunately, a large part, if not a majority, of the Republican party.

By regressing to their reptilian brain, these people have forgotten the motto of the United States, e pluribus unum, one out of many. And it is this motto that provides the basis for the success of the United States. Indeed, these people are considering, and have already attempted an overthrow of the United States government.

Although it is certainly surprising, it can be understood how this can be occurring.

Being simple, the reptilian brain does not require any thinking. People using their reptilian brain hear that the Presidential Election was fixed and that Joe Biden is not the legitimate President of the United States. This is in spite of all the court cases and reviews that have concluded that the election is accurate and legitimate. Moreover, the source of this claim of illegitimacy, Donald Trump, is an inveterate liar. Donald Trump understands Joseph Goebbels, the minister of Nazi propaganda, who advanced the concept of a Big Lie. If lies are big, and the bigger the better, they will be believed by many people, namely, those with reptilian brains. The brain of a reptile is very simple. It doesn’t think or reason, thus being unable to do any logical thinking that would lead to the conclusion that accounts of fraud are preposterous. It is also has no empathy other than for conspecifics.

Reptilian brains also explain how people can believe in and follow ridiculous conspiracies such as QAnon. Conspiracies explain everything and require no thinking.

This problem is exacerbated by social media that send their users to other users who hold the same opinions. It is yet further exacerbated by news outlets that present propaganda rather than news, They are disseminating lies, but this is not illegal. According to the Supreme Court lying, with the exception of lying in a court of law, is not illegal. This is a stupid ruling from the Supreme Court, which does not realize that they are setting the groundwork for their own destruction.

The future of democracy in the United States needs these people to exercise the entire organ of the magnificent human brain, rather than limiting themselves to the intelligence of a reptile. They need to find and develop their intellectual capacity to include critical thinking and develop empathy for people beyond their conspecifics.

Psychological Science on Eyewitness Identification and Its Impact on Police Practices and Policies

January 30, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Gary L.Wells in the American Psychologist, 2020, Vol 75, No.9, 1316-1329. The following is from the article’s abstract:

The development of forensic DNA testing has led to the discovery of hundreds of cases of mistaken eyewitness identification in which innocent people were convicted. Although these discoveries of getting convictions from mistaken identifications based on DNA testing have been a surprise and shock to the legal system and the public, psychological scientists have been less surprised. This is because psychological scientists were “blowing the whistle” on the eyewitness identification for decades prior to forensic DNA testing. Today, most law enforcement agencies in the United States have adopted reformed policies and procedure on eyewitness identification that are based on research by experimental social and cognitive psychologists.

So we are gradually recovering from eyewitness testimony as being a gold standard. HM is amused on TV police shows where photographs of potential suspects lead them directly to the suspects. In reality there are likely many false leads that can result in the arrest of innocent individuals. Fortunately, DNA evidence is truly at a “gold standard level.” Unfortunately, too many innocent individuals were imprisoned based on the judgment of jurors who believed in the accuracy of eyewitnesses. Jurors need to be apprised of the error-proness of eyewitnesses. This is not to condemn these eyewitnesses as experiments have demonstrated how we are unaware of the inaccuracy of our own accounts of individuals and occurrences at a crime scene.

Another problem is that juries are impressed by witnesses who provide testimony that is clear and coherent and does not betray any inconsistencies. It is highly likely that these witnesses have been coached and that this coaching has distorted their testimony. A eyewitness who hems and haws and shows some degree of uncertainty is one that is more likely, in spite of its presentation, to be an honest retrieval from memory.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Growth Mindsets and Self-Esteem

January 29, 2021

This post is inspired by the article “What Can Be Learned from Growth Mindsets” by David S. Yeager and Carol S. Dweck in the American Psychologist, 2020, Vol 75, No 9, 1209-1269-11284. The article itself is intended for psychologists and is highly technical, but there are some important points that have been made in previous posts, and need to be repeated regarding growth mindsets and self affirmation.

When someone confronts difficulties with a problem or concept, people with fixed mindsets conclude that their abilities are limited and that they cannot solve the problem. People with growth mindsets will continue for a long period of time to solve the problem. Of course, they might eventually concede the problem is too difficult, but even then some people will return to solve the problem or learn the concept.

Here the notion of self-affirmation becomes relevant. Unfortunately, at one time psychology promoted the concept of self-esteem. People were warned about the dangers of damaging a child’s self-esteem. Sometimes at children’s sports every child would be awarded a trophy so that no one’s self-esteem would be wounded. Obviously, this policy was short-sighted as the child is going to be confronted with instances, sometimes many such instances, of defeat. HM is disappointed when he still sees this concept of self-esteem being exalted, as there is research showing that individuals with high self-esteem sometimes resist the opportunity to do new tasks because they might fail and this would injure their self-esteem.

HM has proposed that the concept of self-esteem needs to be replaced with the concept of self-affirmation. Self-affirmation means the individual believes that much more, not everything, can be achieved through perseverance and hard work. Self-affirmation encourages growth mindsets. This blog has argued the importance of having growth mindsets throughout one’s lifespan, as this will lead not only to more success in life, but also to a more fulfilling and higher quality of life, to say nothing of developing cognitive reserve to ward of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How Mental Reframing Eased My Stress

January 28, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Steven Petrow in the Perspective part of the Health & Science section of the 26 January 2021 issue of The Washington Post. The specific stress Petrow was suffering was due to the cold, dark winter along with the pandemic.

But this remedy has been long known. 2500 years ago Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha in his quest to reduce suffering came to the conclusion that suffering occurs in the mind and by controlling the mind suffering could be reduced or eliminated.

Petrow relates a trip he took last January when he traveled to northern Finland where the temperatures were far below zero on the Fahrenheit scale and there was nearly a month of days when the sun neither rises nor sets. Ironically, this was a meditation retreat, which, if done properly should have quickly removed the dread. Actually, a meditative state is not required for mental reframing, a skill that was apparently alien to the Americans on the retreat.

But this was not so for the Finns and other Scandinavians on the retreat, who were highly adept at finding their way in this dark season, and who embraced the frigid temperatures.

Sinikka Isokaanta told Petrow how she thrives in the long winters. Nordic people, she said don’t see the “dark cold winter as a crisis but more as a challenge that can be managed in different ways.”

She called it “kotoilu,” which is similar to what the Danes call ‘hygge,’ meaning coziness of home. “It’s a time to enjoy being home with dim lights on, feeling like winter sleeping bears. These periods bring about a sense of grounding, contentment, happiness and togetherness.”

She also had a surprising reframing about how she experiences the long nights. “The darkness offers a safe container to hide from the world. It can be thought of as protection, unlike the bright daylight when everything is visible.”

On the third day Petrow layered on all his winter gear and realized with the right preparation he didn’t feel the cold. He also reframed his perception of the dark, paying more attention to the light reflecting off the snow, the shine of the moon at night and the little fires set along the pathways. He embraced the Finnish winter with “sisu,” or what roughly translates to persistence and resilience—not dread. He saw much beauty in the shadows. Even better, he could find his way with no hint of the sun.

Karl Leibowitz, a Stanford University health psychologist in the Mind and Body Lab said that it is not too late to cultivate a mind-set for the wintertime blues. He urges people to employ two strategies. Spend time outside, perhaps walking in the park or enjoying winter sports. Or just gathering at a coronavirus-safe distance around a fire pit. Being in nature is a well-known way to boost mood as well as mental and physical health. Use natural light to celebrate the darkness of winter.

Appreciate the winter months, and be conscious of your perspective. Try to stop thinking about this season as dark and depressive, with backbreaking snows to clear or gray skies to wear you down, in favor of something magical or evocative of happier times. Take out that instant to cook up stews and soups, pull out the baking soda and tins to make muffins and cakes, even take a few minutes or more to enjoy the magic of a new snowfall before turning to the salting and shoveling.

Remember that mental reframing can also be applied to how we experience illness and the daily challenges. It has been used for children who were getting oral immunotherapy. There are studies indicating that people tend to perform better under stress if they view it as a positive influence rather than a negative or destructive one. Leibowitz says that when you are able to adopt this mind-set, that stress is something that can propel you to achieve your goals, the stress become more of a positive thing.
By changing our attitudes about stress people can have better health outcomes and better performance even without their stress.

20 Years of Chronicling Facts and Avoiding Falsehoods

January 27, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article in the 16 January 2021 issue of the Washington Post. The subtitle is “How Wikipedia staves off the disinformation that plagues the Internet.” It was quite remarkable how the Wikipedia handled the January 6 Capitol riots. The article emerged virtually in real time as more information came in. This was done by nearly 1000 editors who produced more than 10,000 words. It was viewed nearly 2 million times. The only disappointing fact here, is that it has been viewed by just short of 2 million times, as this is the best source for objective information. Not only was this highly timely, but corrections were made by the editors, who are qualified volunteers, as new information came. For 20 years it has done just what the title says. Plus, the Wikipedia is supported by volunteer contributions.

The healthy memory blog has consistently had the following advice:
Stay off social media.
Instead, go to the Wikipedia.

Here is the basic reason.
Social media are money making enterprises. They make money by moving their visitors to information compatible with the visitors’ beliefs. The result here is the polarization that people complain about.

The Wikipedia is managed by people, knowledgeable in the topic they are addressing, who are volunteers and work for nothing.

This problem has moved from being an annoyance, to a threat to our democracy. That was the purpose of these protestors, to overthrow the government, believing the unsupported claims by Trump that the vote had been stolen from him.

It is not just a matter of lies being propagated on the internet. Remember, any loony can develop a conspiracy and publish it on the internet. QAnon is a good example of this. It is completely loony tunes, but with a frightening number of followers. Conspiracy theories provide a vehicle where everything makes sense. As the world is complicated people who are not inclined to critical thinking (Kahneman’s System 2 processing), find it easier just to use Kahneman’s System 1 processing, which proceeds almost automatically, unchecked, and facilitates emotional processing.

It is difficult to persuade these people of the truth. They have social support for their beliefs plus the phenomena of cognitive dissonance makes it difficult to persuade them to change their minds. In addition to the cognitive effort (thinking) required, cognitive dissonance makes it difficult for them to believe that they have been complete jackasses.

Go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia

The Healthy Memory Model of Memory

January 26, 2021

This model has been presented in previous blog posts. But this model provides an important way to think about our memories, so it is wise to explicitly place the title in the post.

An extremely useful, and perhaps the best way to think about our memories is as a corporation. Our consciousness resides in the executive suite on the top floor. In the floors below our memories are stored. But these floors provide more than storage. Staff memories operate on consolidating and relating these memories, but these activities are below our level of consciousness. This corporation is like most corporations in that the majority of activity occurs on these lower floors.

Our conscious mind is important because it provides direction to the staff on the lower floors. This enables us to monitor and control our emotions as well as our knowledge and specific pieces of information. The time and effort spent on different memories informs the staff as to what’s important.

The availability accessibility distinction is important. An enormous amount of information is available, much more than can be accessed at any given time. So always be aware that being unable to retrieve information does not mean that it is not there. Moreover, even if extended effort fails to retrieve the information, don’t be surprised if at some later time, perhaps minutes or even days later, this information will suddenly pop into memory, implying that the staff members have been working to retrieve this information for a long time.

Consider the enormous amount of information and skills that a senior has acquired over a lifetime. Computer simulations have been done that indicate that an enormous amount of information is available, but this amount is so large that at any given moment, he will be unable or have difficulty retrieving some of it. This is the reason HM tells people to never apologize for these so called senior moments. In truth, this is likely due to the enormous amount of information, and hopefully wisdom, that has been acquired.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

No Easy Answers…But No Pessimism Either

January 25, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of the final chapter in an important book by Donald W. Pfaff, Ph.D. with Sandra Sherman.

Pfaff writes, “The Altruistic Brain offers evidence that based on our neural circuitry, we can believe in our own good nature. It argues further that such belief can have positive, even transformative effects, in individual lives. But now let’s take this concept to the next level: in mathematical terms, imagine the Altruistic Brain Squared. That is, what if each person’s belief in himself was generalized within a social setting or particular group, such that everyone in that group believed in everyone else’s good nature? This could produce an altruistic ‘multiplier effect,’ that covers the baleful effect discussed in the previous post. Thus, instead of a mass of bad people making the other behave even worse, groups of good people would synergize each other’s best inclinations.”

He goes on to write that ABT is naturally compatible with two types of social strategies that seem more workable on account of the theory, whether they are employed individually or in any combination:

*James Gilligan’s idea that we treat concerns over moral behavior as we would a problem of public health.

*The empowerment of women, lessening the effect of testosterone-driven behavior in society.

HM resonates especially strongly with this second point. Early on it is obvious why testosterone driven male dominance prevailed and was acceptable. But the world has advanced to the point where emotional intelligence is most important. And the fairer sex prevails when it comes to emotional intelligence. Critical now, is not so much strength, but effective interactions among humans in which emotional intelligence is most important. In an age where emotional ignorance could lead to the extinction of the human species, it is unfortunate that women’s empowerment has yet to evolve. We cannot wait any longer.

Let us end with some points on practical means.

  • Repetition and foreknowledge that repeated interactions can be effective. During the Prisoner’s Dilemma computer game, the success of simple programs that proved to be ‘evolutionary stable strategies’ depending on repetition.
    One’s ethical behavior toward another will be encouraged by one’s impression that this other will behave kindly toward one in return.
    Network formation. It will always be true that some individuals will interact socially more than others. Key to this will be the formation of social clusters that help each other, with the limiting condition that the benefit-to-cost ratio of joining the cluster must be seen by the new ‘joiner’ as adequate.
    More than one level of social interaction determines cooperation, meaning that computer-program cooperation evolves best if substantial numbers of groups and levels of groups are involved in the process of developing cooperative behaviors, not just individuals.

Multiplier Effect

January 24, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Donald W. Pfaff, Ph.D. with Sandra Sherman. The subtitle is From Bad to Worse in a Social Setting. The chapter begins, “It must be admitted that however powerful Altruistic Brain Mechanisms may be, they can be overwhelmed in some circumstances. In the previous chapter, I dealt with some examples of bad behavior, but I must say that pernicious influences of groups can make it even harder to behave well. That is, Altruistic Brain mechanisms do not operate in isolation. They are beset by and must resist tendencies toward antisocial behaviors. This resistance becomes more difficult if environmental influences strengthen a person’s antisocial impulses. Because ‘it’s a tough world out there,’ it is important to consider some of the large-scale influences that interfere with the Altruistic Brain. That is, if it is difficult to overcome temptations presented to an individual operating as an individual—without any reinforcement or peer pressure—how much harder is this when bad influences are presented by powerful groups? Three types of harmful group activities have consistently engaged social scientists: gangs, war, and genocide. In this chapter, I examine how we can use Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT) to understand some of he negative group dynamics responsible for these phenomena.”

Regarding gangs, Pfaff writes, “One powerful social phenomenon inhibiting the Altruistic Brain is the youth gang phenomenon. Gangs exacerbate the behavioral problems in young men by permitting their peers to provide affirmation for their most aggressive tendencies. Predictably, young men join gangs in their adolescence as their tester one begins to click in. Once they have established themselves in a gang, members are reciprocally altruistic, perversely applying Altruistic Brain principle to cover for each other: ‘You take care of me. I’ll watch your back.’ Though society cringes at the result, such baleful reciprocity makes sense from the perspective of hyped teenagers looking for support. On a much smaller scale, but increasingly, young women are also forming gangs—not in response to tester one, of course, but to find their own communities and because young men set the example. Even more commonly, girls form cliques, but neurobiologists ave a longer history of studying instincts that lead to gang formation and gang behaviors in boys.”

The New York Police Department (NYPD) had an anti-gang unit. Young men join gangs in part because gangs often reproduce the members’ national backgrounds;
immigrants, for example, find in gangs safe havens that acknowledge their own language and culture. Gang members almost never come from rich families, so young boys, taught by their more experienced elders in the gangs, share in the spoils of whatever criminal activities the gang does, from simple burglaries to drug dealing. Besides gaining access to money, gang members can get guns, drugs, and alcohol. For example, among boys in Atlanta who began alcohol use before the age of 13, significantly more were gang members than non-members.

Pfaff asks, “So how do we reinforce Altruistic Brain operations in a manner than interferes with the effect of gangs on at-risk boys behavior? Clearly, civic institutions must offer boys an array of outlets that substitute for potential gang member ship before too much tester one powers up a boy’s brain. What about after-school games or clubs; job training, or even the opportunity to feel pride in planting trees, raising bees, or helping the homeless? What about giving kids a sense of belonging—a sense of identity—in which the group offers a safe haven, complete with familiar customs and even initiations that impart a sense of specialness? What about something as simple as curfews, which give kids a sense of limits? Any such efforts present a challenge, given the current state of austerity and the ever-available option to send youngsters away for ‘reform.’ There is a conviction among skeptics that we have tried so much, with only minimal success. But often we fail because we wait too long. If we intervene before boys’ sexual and aggressive tendencies reach their full maturity—and interpose a much higher barrier to any of society’s attempt we could still have a chance.”

Pfaff provides long discussions of both war and genocide. HM believes his readers are well aware of these problems. The question is how best to address these problems, and will Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT) provide any solutions. The primary lesson from ABT is that the problems of both war and genocide should not be regarded as inevitable. The job ahead for researchers in ABT is to develop and evaluate concepts and approaches for these problems.

HM sees that authoritarianism is central to both problems. Unfortunately authoritarianism is growing through the world. There have been many healthy memory blog posts on this topic primarily based on the book by John W. Dean and Bob Altemeyer, titled Authoritarian Nightmare. The first approach is political and that is for democracies to defeat politicians with authoritarian beliefs at the poles. Once elected, as we have seen, attacks on democracies can be expected.

How Altruistic Brain Theory Changes Our Perceptions of Ourselves and of Altruism

January 23, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Donald W. Pfaff, Ph.D. with Sandra Sherman. It is the first chapter in Part II titled improving Performance of the Moral Brain with the subtitle Removing Obstacles to Good Behavior.

The first section is titled The Effect of Individual Self-Image On Individuals’ Capacity to Succeed. There have been many previous blog posts on the work of Carol Dweck on growth mindsets. If a person believes he can succeed, he is highly likely to succeed because he will not give up and continue until success is achieved.

Neuroscientists have begun to explore the brain mechanisms associated with low self-esteem. Low self-esteem, produced for example by early-life abuse and neglect, correlates with an excess secretion of stress hormones from the adrenal glands, particularly in response to a difficult situation. Bruce McEwen has shown that these hormones have particularly strong effects on a crucial part of the brain involved in both cognitive and emotional behavior: the hippocampus. Scientists at McGill University have shown that low self-esteem was associated with a shrunken hippocampus. Pfaff concludes from these studies that in a mistreated young boy, low self-esteem leads to antisocial behaviors, at least in part because of the effects of excess stress hormones acting in the brain, especially the hippocampus. Good self-esteem—stemming from the knowledge that our brains are wired to be good—could have important effects on how young people behave.

Pfaff offers examples of how, in the light of ABT, applications of the theory to current problems in human behavior.

Resisting negative peer pressure. Studies of adolescents have shown that they are highly vulnerable to negative peer pressure. They join gangs; they smoke; they do drugs. In large measure, this is because they want to belong to a group that they imagine enhances their individual status and provides affirmation by virtue of a collective sameness. Yet what if teenagers at risk could be given a firm sense that they were “better than than that,“ that they possessed a capacity for moral behavior that was in itself commendable, and was a foundation for personal and social value irrespective of others’ affirmation. To understand that one is good—when this is new information—is immensely liberating, freeing one from the need to seek approval beyond the circumference of a personal moral compass.
Encouraging Empathy. A recent movement in schools around the world has been sparked by efforts to encourage empathy even in the lowest grades. One organization, Roots of Empathy, has developed an extensive program enabling students to develop empathy and apply it in real-life settings. Another group, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, has similar if broader goals, teaching children how to master “relationship” skills.

Empathy is critical for relationship formation.

Personal relationships, the central role of trust. This should be obvious and requires little elaboration. Absent trust, personal relationships suffer.
Relationships are important in a broader social context. Recent scholarship points to the benefits of reincorporating the notions of mutual trust into the nation’s political, economic, and legal institutions. This is ABT placed on a big state, that of business and political politics.
The effect of empathy in alternative dispute resolution. A thorough understanding of ABT should render alternative dispute resolution (ADR) proceedings more likely to succeed. This is because participants’ knowledge of each other’s Golden Rule circuitry will facilitate the trust that ADR depends on.
Conflict resolution proceedings. Conflict resolution is akin to ADR but more broadly focused, and is not necessarily a surrogate for litigation. It also depends on the kind of trust that ABT encourages.
Readers of this blog should be well aware of the skepticism that HM holds regarding the law itself. It has argued that first of all, the law should align itself explicitly with justice. Currently, the law is interpreted with respect to the Constitution with no direct mention of Justice itself.

Pfaff writes, “What we think the law should consider is whether, given our current understanding of the brain, its wholesale dismissal of human empathy is appropriate. Is there room for empathy in a courtroom dealing with issues tat are usually left to actuaries? Should neuroscience be dismissed as “fuzzy” science when stacked up against hard financial calculation” At present, most courts would seem to say yes, In another damages case, Alexander v. City of Jackson (2008), this time involving sexual harassment of firemen, a Mississippi district court relied on Whitehead to throw out a decision in which financial awards calculated down to the exact penny were found tainted by the jury’s response to a Golden Rule argument.

Pfaff concludes this chapter as follows, “In conclusion, if a person simply realized that he is wired for good, altruistic behavior, and behaves accordingly, and if he person toward whom he is about to behave does the same thing, then everything is likely to come out OK. Of course though such operations on oneself as decision maker are well and good, what about the social milieu in which the decision maker operates? The very last chapter will address this question as it discusses social applications to Altruistic Brain thinking.

Why the Altruistic Brain Matters

January 22, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Donald W. Pfaff, Ph.D. with Sandra Sherman. The subtitle is Its significance to addressing Individuals’ Bad Behavior.

The chapter begins, “Altruistic Brain mechanisms are powerful, predisposing humans to act with reciprocal kindness. Nevertheless, other mechanisms built into the brain can challenge them, producing aggressive, antisocial behavior that probably evolved to protect us again threats extant in early human history.”

The initial strength and reliability of Altruistic Brain mechanisms can vary widely from one individual to another. The focus here is on the behaviors of individuals whose mechanisms are weak. For example, their image-merging operation may be deficient on account of a neurological quirk.

Consider violent crime caused by testerone-fueled aggression. Internationally, more than 85% of murders are committed by men. In the United States, men initiate more than 90% of violent acts. Young white males between 14 and 24 years of age commit almost 17% of the murders.

Consider the common occurrence of a spurned male lover who stalks and violently attacks his ex-girlfriend. Tester one, having been produced by the testes and circulated in the bloodstream to the brain, promotes activity in neural circuits that will produce aggressive behavior and suppress activity in neural circuits that would reduce aggression. Both of these actions prime the trigger for violent behavior. Lipid-soluble tester one spreads from the bloodstream through the entire brain, which has a great deal of lipid. In neurons, tester one has two types of actions. First, a select group of neurons (called androgen receptors because testosterone is an androgenic hormone) contain proteins the are specialized to bind up testosterone. As soon as testosterone has bound to its androgen receptor in a neuron, the receptor protein finds its way to to the surface of the DNA in that neuron and has the opportunity to alter gene expression.

Such testosterone-fueled aggression originates in ancient parts of the forebrain. One cell group, exquisitely sensitive to testosterone, promotes aggression, while the second cell group inhibits it. Testosterone activates the former and inhibits the latter, thus fostering aggression through a dual ‘push/pull’ set of mechanisms.

Pfaff suggests three ways to reduce boys’ aggression. First, engaging boys in prosocial group activities before testosterone levels rise during adolescence will head off testosterone-laden trouble. Second, for boys who are already ‘off the deep end’ with violent behavior, blocking the testosterone/vasopressin connection should help. Finally, modern behavioral neuroscience recognizes that any pharmaceutical approach has to be accompanied by cognitive behavioral therapy.

Unfortunately, there are people who can perform multiple antisocial acts with no sense of remorse. Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT) does not work in these people. Some of these are psychopaths, and the most famous among them populate the media. A psychopath engages in repeatedly antisocial behaviors that seriously hurt others and that are accompanied by passive indifference to the destructive consequences of their actions.

Baron-Cohen seeks to understand antisocial behavior by characterizing empathy according to degrees. People with a total absence of empathy (‘Zero’), stuck in an environment with negative effects on their personalities (‘Negative’), may well turn out to be psychopaths (‘Zero-Negatiive Type P’). According to Baron-Cohen, the psychopath, totally preoccupied with his desires and willing to do whatever it might take to satisfy them, may be superficially charming, but will be undependable, dishonest, suffer from a poverty of emotions, and will fail to learn from punishment. Baron-Cohen traces the psychopath’s life back to a condition of ‘insecure attachment’ to his parents. Attachment theorist John Bowlby emphasizes the infant’s caregiver as a ‘secure base’ to whom the infant, having begun to explore the world, can return for ‘emotional refueling.’ Baron-Cohen thinks that the psychopath-to-be lacks this resource. Such a person does not fear punishment for immoral acts, so the barrier to committing immoral acts has been lowered. So apart from inadequate early support from parents or other caregivers, how did this come about?

Pfaff rules out simple genetic determinism, and no one has reported a ‘psychopathic gene.’ But experts have emphasized the importance of genetic influences interacting with environmental influences. For example mutations in genes connected with signaling by the neurotransmitter serotonin coupled with a crime-ridden environment might predetermine the kind of impulsive aggressive behavior sometimes associated with psychopathology. This is important because we can deal with environmental influences, and attempt to compensate for them as as to rectify the lack of empathy.

Corruption is interesting because the Altruistic Brain itself, produces socially unacceptable acts. In cases of corruption, the trigger mechanism in Step 5 is co-opted, turned back on itself that though a type of reciprocity occurs it clashes with social norms. Brain mechanisms that normally function to produce ‘good’ benevolent behavior result in behavior that society deplores. Where the brain sees an opportunity to reciprocate—and hence foster mutual survival—the law sees illegality.

Although people think of corruption as sets of cold, calculating acts by public figures or public organizations, acts carried out in brutal fashion. But by far the largest number of corrupt acts, numerous because they are so easy, occur among friends and acquaintances on a small, local scale: the policemen in a tough neighborhood who gets free food at the deli and who, in turn, promises to fix the deli owner’s parking tickets; the financier who provides inside information to the broker who give him a price break; the building inspector who overlooks a violation so that his nephew can rent space on the cheap.

Pfaff is encouraged by the work of neuroscientists studying the brain’s plasticity, it’s ability to change structurally in response to experience particularly such experience as is associated with mental effort. Much of this research has been discussed in previous healthy memory blog posts. Just enter “Davidson” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com or The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Dr. Daniel Siegel, Director of the Mindfulness Awareness Center at UCLA, observes that ‘we can use [the developing ability to focus on our inner world] to rescript our neural pathways, stimulating the growth of areas critical to mental health. If we can accomplish this resculpting and improve our mental health. could it be possible to do so with regard to the state of morality?

New Neuroscience Research

January 21, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Donald W. Pfaff, Ph.D. with Sandra Sherman. The subtle is “The Theory’s Link to an Ethical Universal.” The chapter begins, “This chapter links Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT) to the latest neuroscience research on ethical decision making. That research, in turn, sheds light on the biological origins of classical morality. I will argue that there is a discernible path to the laboratory from Buddha, the Bible, and the great 19th century philosophers. My point, therefore, will be that ABT is an explicit, scientific approach to ideas that have persisted in culture for a very long time. What is new is the science.”

While employing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Joshua Greene asks human subjects to consider various moral dilemmas and make decisions about what they would do. He varies the emotional intensity of each dilemma by touching versus acting at a distance while also changing the weights of the decision (such as saving 10 or 12 people rather than 5) to better probe the factors leading a person to act in a certain way. While subjects are pondering these dilemmas and arriving at decisions, he records relative activity in different regions of the brain.

“It turns out that when people are faced with dilemmas where it is easy to choose in a way that would make a Utilitarian proud—that is, they can save the greater number of people using relatively impersonal means, such as throwing a switch—there is great activation in a brain region known to be involved in abstract thinking and other higher-order thought processes called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). Specifically Greene and his colleagues have found that the DLPFC is associated with rational judgments made in the context of competing emotional responses—such as the need to save five people and the revulsion of killing one. This is generally consistent with previous research that depicts the DLPFC as a region responsible for applying “executive” behavioral rules in the face of powerful but unaligned stimuli.”

“In a nearby but distinct brain region, the medial prefrontal cortex, there is greater activity when the moral judgments are particularly emotional and physically immediate. As an example of such a judgment, let’s take a real-life scenario experienced in Nazi Germany. Imagine you are hiding in a confined space with a group of 30 friends and family. You are all frozen-silent, as any sound could lead directly to your deaths. Your infant starts to fuss. You know that the only way to keep her silent for long enough is to smother her. What do you do? Such decisions involved activity of neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex.”

“Greene and colleagues have also found that the underside, or ventral, area of the medial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) is involved with tracking the overall value of various outcomes consequent to different actions in response to an ethical choice. Linking this important function of value estimation to ABT, neurons in the VMPFC (according to Josh Greene’s new data) can calculate the beneficence (or potential evil) of the intended action (from ABT Step 1) and, according to the result of that calculation, pass on the ABT decision to neurons involved in activating behavior (neurons that will carry out Step 5 of ABT).

Greene explains, “our research is not just showing that the VMPFC is ‘involved’ in moral judgment in some vague way. Rather, we show that parts of the VMPFC specifically track the statistical interaction between outcome magnitude (e.g., how many lives)? and outcome probability (i.e., what are the odds of saving them?) in the context of moral judgment.” He went on to point out the finding is parallel to previous studies that have used food and monetary rewards rather than ‘number of lives saved’ “This region seems to keep track of expected value more generally.” Interestingly, over the course of evolution, both the DLPFC and the VMPFC have grown to impressive sizes in humans and other highly intelligent and social species such as apes.”

“Here are just a few of the many examples of historical evidence for Golden Rule—like prescriptions, demonstrating that they have been a feature of human relations for centuries. They all speak to a universal presence of Altruistic Brain operations in the human brain.

A papyrus from ancient Egypt, c.664 BCE—323 BCE., reads ‘That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.’ Similar examples from around the same period can be found among texts from ancient Greece.

Across the globe, in ancient China, Confucius states in the sacred Analects, written or compiled between 474 B.C.E. and 221 B.C.E., ‘Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.’ The sentiment is featured in the story of a disciple who asked for ‘one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life? Confucius answered ‘Is reciprocity such a word? Do not to others what you do not want done to yourself—this is what the word means.’

On the Indian subcontinent, we find such sentiments through influential epic tales and portions of the Vedic Scriptures, deemed Hinduism’s oldest texts. From the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic regarded by some to have impacted world civilization with a weight comparative to the Bible and the Qur’an, come this quotation: ‘Do not to others what you do not wish done to yourself; and wish for others too what you desired and long for, for yourself—This the whole of Dharma; heed it well.’”

“While we are considering schools of thought arising from India, we must not overlook Buddhism, the fourth-largest religion in the world behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Like other great leaders, the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, who taught in the 5th century B.C.E., made reciprocally altruistic behavior the keystone of his ethics. In the Udanavarga and elsewhere, he made the rule explicit: ‘Hurt not others in the ways that you yourself would find hurtful’”.

Pfaff concludes, “Homo sapiens brain is designed to support and enforce behaviors that help to create society and keep us from splaying off into isolated individual actors unconcerned for the good of the whole.”

Neural and Hormonal Mechanisms That Promote Prosocial Behaviors Once the Ethical Decision is Made

January 20, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Donald W. Pfaff, Ph.D. with Sandra Sherman. Friendly behaviors that evolved to support reproduction provided the substrate that enabled altruistic behaviors reaching beyond the immediate family ultimately to take off. As humans engaged in sex and parenthood—with repeated intense opportunities for intimacy and caring—they literally practiced, internalized, and then generalized beyond their immediate social sphere the kindness that these behaviors entailed. Sex and parenthood were the laboratories where our species learned how to give spontaneously, if for no other reason than that giving was necessary to sustain relationships among partners and children, as well as to sustain the life of helpless infants. Pfaff explains how sex and parenthood operated, over eons, to imprint an instinct for spontaneous kindness, altruism, on the human brain, so that now it is so much a part of our collective personality that we have ceased to recognize its origin in primitive, but ultimately crucial survival mechanisms.

Pfaff argues that kindness is something that we learn as individuals, as we begin to experience sexual intimacy and parenthood. Kindness is reimprinted on our brains as we chose it for the pleasurable associations that it entails. Sex and parenthood are still at work in our lives in secondary capacities, reinforcing traits that we are already inclined to express.

As a practical matter, well-accepted neuroscience leads to the conclusion that we are ‘wired’ to behave altruistically. Neuroscience understands the elements of how we can be altruistic; when these elements are concatenated, as in Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT), our capacity for ethical behavior is not a mystery.

ABT states that once the brain processes the sequence of steps entailed by its ‘golden rule’ wiring, and the potential result of an action is evaluated, an ethical switch flips toward ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ If Yes: a prosocial act is undertaken. If No: an antisocial act is avoided. In either case, the issue is: what is the determinant? Why does someone act or refrain from acting, and why would the action (or failure to act) more likely be toward the decent end of the spectrum as opposed to the nasty? It is important to understand the neurohormonal forces acting in the brain in such a way as to actually produce friendly behaviors (and block unfriendly ones) once the ethical decision has been made. Not only do such prosocial behaviors produce the desired consequences for society and civilized life, but they also promote health because they support friendships. Many medical and epidemiological studies have shown that having friends, on average, prolongs life and increases quality, as well as improving our psychological well-being.

When we take care of others, displaying our altruistic brains in action, we are using our neural circuits and hormonal stimuli that build on those that our evolutionary forerunners established for purposes of mating and taking care of the young. In acting altruistically, we extend our purview far beyond sex partners and our own children to include people to whom we are not even related. In evolutionary terms, we have ‘learned’ from sex and parenting behaviors, creating a feedback loop that reinforces our instincts toward ethical behaviors. Because stimuli from the opposite sex cause us to activate hormonal and neural mechanisms that can issue in erotic acts, and because other stimuli trigger parental instincts, when we act altruistically we extend our action to encompass man more people as objects of emotionally positive, friendly acts. Our brains build on and add to these specific hormonal and neural mechanisms to achieve a much broader repertoire of civilized behaviors. We are wired and hormonally prepared to desire connection; it makes us feel good and from connection comes reciprocity, the best way to ensure connection in the future. Acting well toward others and their acting well toward us are self-reinforcing, a ‘virtuous circle.’ They are self-reinforcing because we like the feeling of treating others well and their treating us well.

The biochemistry of hormones as well as on neurochemicals like oxytocin, show how decisions to favor prosocial acts, reached via Altruistic Brain mechanisms, are reinforced by primitive, powerful circuitry in the brain. Hormones and nerve cells that regard the behaviors that are essentially social and can be among the friendliest behaviors—sex and patenting—provide the evolutionary and mechanistic background for prosociality.

Scientific finds tell how various hormones and chemicals facilitate a wonderfully wide range of human behaviors that we would all call ‘friendly.’ Once the Altruistic Brain mechanisms make the decision to initiate an altruistic act, hormones and neurons propel us to carry out that act, that is, to do the right thing.

Yet notwithstanding these physical predispositions toward prosocial behavior, there are too many circumstance in which people behave in an antisocial manner: violent behavior, psychopathology, corruption and so forth. Fortunately, science knows some of the reasons for such behaviors. This knowledge can allow us to think about how to address antisocial behaviors by applying Altruistic Brain principles.

Avoidance of Antisocial Behavior

January 19, 2021

The first three steps (representation, perception, and merging of images) are exactly the same as for the altruistic act. The next two steps differ.

Step 4: The Altruistic Brain

Representation of the act from Step 1 and the united, combined image from Step 3 arrive at the ‘ethical switch’ in the person’s brain. For example, if a potential killer was planning to murder another person, the combined self/other signal is sent to the prefrontal cortex. There Altruistic Brain neurons are unable to register the difference between the effect on the target and himself and they inhibit motor cortex neurons that might have carried out the heinous act. While this may occur at conscious level, it also can be instantaneous and unconscious. Altruistic Brain mechanisms in the prefrontal cortex also, of course, inhibit nasty acts much less serious than murder. Mechanisms for this will be provided in a subsequent post.

Step 5: Behavior. Decline to Perform an Antisocial Act.

Here, Altruistic Brain neurons in the prefrontal cortex prevent motor acts that would harm another person. No harmful act takes place.

This ‘avoidance’ scenario, like its ‘performance’ counterpart, is also totally spontaneous in the sense that humans are wired to produce good (and avoid bad) behavior. Pfaff is reminded of when one of his friends was furious at her neighbor whose dogs never stopped barking. She and the neighbor got into regular shouting matches. She wanted to push the woman and make her physically suffer. But did she? ‘No,’ she said, ‘something always restrained me.’ Of course, we can all identify with such restraint, which represents ABT in action. If community is built on being kind to others, it also relies on not doing things that hurt. It is this combination of action and restraint that is part of our evolutionary equipment, and that has contributed so profoundly to our species’ survival.

PRIMARY NEUROSCIENCE RESEARCH UNDERLYING EACH STEP OF ALTRUISTIC BRAIN THEORY

January 18, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Donald W. Pfaff, Ph.D. with Sandra Sherman. The subtitle is “How We are Naturally Good.”

Neural Basis of Step 1: How We can Represent an Act in Our Brain Before Undertaking the Act

Corollary discharge refers to the extra motor signals that are sent over to the sensory pathways to notify the sensory pathways that the world will appear to change as the result of movement. When we move our eyes to the right, the world does not appear to jump to the left. This is because the same motor neurons that tell the eye muscles what to do also represent the movement to the visual system so that the visual system expects such an eye movement. ‘Corollary discharge’ means the common phenomenon that the brain represents intended movements to its appropriate sensory system.

Neural Basis of Step 2: How We can Perceive the Target of an Intended act.

When we see another person this visual information is processed by our brains so that an image of that person is virtually ‘constructed’ in the brain. This occurs in a area of in the inferotemporal cortex which is much further forward than the primary visual cortex, which is at the very back of the brain. There are neurons here that will respond only to faces. Some neurons respond best to faces shown in profile; others respond to frontal views of faces. Neuroanatomical work by MIT Professor Nancy Kanwisher used functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) and found a convincing “face recognition module” in one part of the human brain. She even identified specific electromagnetic waves associated with the categorization of visual stimuli as faces and the successful recognition of individual faces.

What about the case when the beneficiary is not right in front of the person who is going to perform an altruistic act, but instead as a generic ‘image’ —some unknown wounded person. In such a situation, the visual representation of that generic person must be there in the cortex, but neuroscience does not yet know how that envisioning process is initiated.

To summarize, we all want our percepts—our sensory signals—to be clear and accurate, a neurophysiological challenge. ABT posits the opposite, the challenging case in which our sensory signals are unclear as the next step explains.

Neural Basis of Step 3: How Images of Actor and Target Can Merge in the Brain

Here is one way to understand how the merging or joining of images can take place. It has to do with ‘cell assemblies,’ groups of neurons that enable us to recognize faces. If any one part of a cell assembly is turned off, the function of that cell assembly is not accomplished. It is easy to make a cell assembly not function, by altering the chemistry of one of those cells in the assembly or by altering their hookups. So if cells are not working in the relevant part of the cerebral cortex, a special part of the temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex essential for face recognition, that would reduce our ability to recognize and think about a person’s individual visual image, and correspondingly increase the opportunity to see the other person’s image as our own. As a consequence, using mechanisms spelled out later, the lack of precision of facial perception can be achieved as required by ABT.

It is clearly plausible to propose a reduction in operational efficiency of neural circuits the discriminate between oneself and ‘not self,’ that is, another person.

One could depict an act to be avoided. A young man might be angry and intend to push someone in front of a bus. But during the interval, his mental image of the would-be target merges with his own. He is left with an instantaneous image of himself being pushed in front of the bus. Hence he desists.

Pfaff proposes three ways of merging images of two persons. So although proof of this process is not provided, possible avenues of accomplishing this merger are proposed.

Neural Basis of Step 4: When the Brain Evaluates an Impending Action, then it causes a prosocial act.

Step 4 unfolds when the positive or negative import for feelings and thus for intended action is determined. The cortex needs to link the blurred image and intended action to parts of the brain that will evaluate what results they might lead to. Then the message, appropriately processed, will be headed for an emotionally loaded ‘ethical switch.’ a mechanism in the brain influenced by positive or negative emotional consequences.

Neural Basis of Step 5: The Decision and the Act

In Step 5 a classic Yes/No decision that the central nervous system has to make all the time it is carried out. Carrying out the behavior uses ordinary motor control neurophysiology of the sort that has been studied for almost a century. This is the simplest step of the theory because the emotional valence of the considered act has already been realized. If in Step 4, the intended action leads to a positive result, then the action will be carried out. If an intended action leads to perceived harm of the imaged self achieved in Step 3, then the action will not be carried out.

Where in the brain does this final step take place? Modern neuroscience’s best guess at the time of this writing would be in an obscure part of the cerebral cortex called the ‘insula.’ Insula neurons respond to pleasant states (leading to the performance of the intended response) or to the impression of moral disgust (leading to abstention from the intended response). The output of the insula connects to motor control systems in the forebrain that allow the insula to ‘weigh in’ on the performance of the motor act that is being considered. If there are good consequences, then it’s Go! If, however there are bad consequences for the act’s intended recipient, then it’s No Go.

Pfaff raised the question as to when the decision to perform an altruistic act has been completed, what neurobiological forces ensure that the act will actually be carried out? Does the brain proceed with the motor act based on ‘goodness for its own sake,’ or are there strong biological forces that have evolved to encourage prosocial behavior? The answer is the latter, and those forces are ground in our instincts toward sex and parental care, that is, in the biology of reproduction. A tremendous amount of primary neuroscience research tells us how this works. Those studies will be discussed in the next posts.

Altruistic Brain Theory

January 17, 2021

This post is taken from the book titled The Altruistic Brain by Donald W. Pfaff, Ph.D. with Sandra Sherman. The subtle is “How We are Naturally Good.” He writes, “…good behavior in humans can be explained much more straightforwardly than previously understood. The human brain processes altruism in five specific steps:

Step 1: Your central nervous system registers the act that you are about to perform toward another person. A vast amount of data, gathered during electrical recording from nerve cells of experimental subjects, proves that the brain signals a movement to itself before the movement occurs.

Step 2: You picture the person who will be the target of this act, This step in the theory is necessary for the later evaluation of the act toward that person.

Step 3: The image of that person blurs with that of one’s self. This step is crucial, as it provides the basis for treating the other person like oneself. It is also an easy step to accomplish because it does not require greater precision of performance by the nervous system but, instead, less precise performance.

Step 4: You experience “feeling,” which allows you to evaluate the consequences of the potential act. Once the act is represented in your brain and your combined self/other image is in place, neurons in your prefrontal cortex place a positive or a negative value on the act. The Altruistic Brain has been activated.

Step 5: You decide whether or not to act. According to Step 4, if the consequence of the act is good, you perform it. If it is bad, you don’t.”

“Each step takes place below the level of consciousness and is completed with the tiniest fraction of a second. Because the brain makes a quick, split-second decision to act morally, I call the mechanism for it the Altruistic Brain, and thus the theory for how this mechanism operates is the ABT.

After centuries of debate over whether humanity is fundamentally flawed (as blamed on Eve) or particularly benevolent (as proposed by the philosopher David Hume), neuroscience is ready to provide the answer: We are good. In fact, the guiding principle of a healthy human brain is, “First act morally, then ask why.”

“My concept of an Altruistic Brain did not originate from any single particular study in my own lab. Rather, several years ago, I read philosophy and religion extensively, and realized with a growing excitement that religious and philosophical demands for reciprocally benevolent behavior appeared to be remarkably consistent across all of these writings.

As I read, it occurred to me that the universal nature dictated for human benevolence—the Golden Rule—like requirements across centuries and continents—indicated a basis in biology. I concluded that I should start to think about whether the brain, the organ on which I have now worked for more than 50 years, played a role in shaping this apparently universal inclination.”

“The Altruistic Brain will put my findings in context with the most recent developments across the field of neuroscience. Examine the results of scientific tools, such as brain images produced by functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI), and apply them to a physical/cellular analysis of how we behave well toward each other. I also present the overwhelming statistical, psychological, evolutionary, genetic, and neurological evidence that the human brain is wired for goodwill, which propels toward empathic displays of altruism.”

“I also examine the unmediated response of one human being to another, a potential that is wired into everybody’s brain. I present these brain mechanisms with the knowledge of a working neuroscientist who has been studying how the brain regulated behavior—normal and abnormal—for his entire career….I offer real-life nerve cell examples of how this behavior occurs, which helps explain who we are with respect to our behaviors toward other individuals—our ethical, moral behaviors, or in some cases a lack thereof.”

The Biological/Evolutionary Roots of Altruism

January 16, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Donald W. Pfaff, Ph.D. with Sandra Sherman. The subtle is “How We are Naturally Good.” Let’s begin with three evolutionary theories about the development of altruism.

The first is selfish DNA. Early in the last century, British statistician Ronald A. Fisher turned his attention to neural variations in traits among individuals in large populations. According to Oren Harman in The Price of Altruism, Fisher thought about how to integrate genetics into the explanation of variations among individuals. Harman observes that “the centerpiece” of Fisher’s book was “the fundamental theorem of natural selection” among individuals, to determine who would live long enough to reproduce: ‘The rate of increase of any organism is equal to its genetic variance at that time. Applying this genetic approach to the analysis of social behaviors among animals and humans, the British biologist Richard Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene that insofar as the selfish gene influences behavior, it would regulate behavior in such a way as to increase the frequency in the gene pool. That goal simply requires that the individual whose behavior is affected by that gene should survive as long as possible and reproduce as frequently as possible.’

Though the bulk of his book emphasizes self-centered behavior, Dawkins is willing to soften his hard-nosed approach to social behavior when talking about humans, In the case of humans, he thinks we should consider the cultural transmission of influences on behavior. In any culture, an individual may imitate the behavior of another person, usually older and admired. Is it possible, then, to think of a ‘unit of cultural transmission’ analogous to a gene? Dawkins, citing the world ‘imitate,’ comes up with ‘mimene’ and then the more euphonious word ‘meme.’ This additional form of behavioral regulation inherently opens up new possibilities for explaining cultural forms that are specifically human and not selfish..

The second is Kin Selection Theory, which goes something like this, ‘I help this person because he is related to me and if he survives through the age of reproduction, parts of my DNA will be passed on. The closer he is related, the more of my DNA he has. From a purely genetic perspective, kin selection works effectively to share in the explanation of altruistic behaviors, and emotionally it makes sense. However, some biologists have thought that it is too restrictive, Thus there is a third theory, group selection.

Group selection provides a broader, less restrictive principle to account for this altruistic social behavior. Group selection provides the breadth but at the same time, it is recognized as the weakest, slowest way to increase the level of altruism in an evolving society. Elizabeth Dunn conducted research concerning the emotional consequences of spending money on others under controlled laboratory circumstances. She knows the psychological literature describing how people enjoy helping acquaintances and donating to charity. So she used a large sample of more than 600 Americans to look for the emotional effect of ‘investing income in others rather than oneself.’ Comparing subjects’ different ways of spending money on a monthly basis—rent, food, other expenses—she found that their general happiness was not related to spending on themselves, but correlated much more closely with what they spend on gifts for others and donations to charity. In a smaller sample of individuals who benefited from an unexpected economic windfall, the only measure that predicted those people’s happiness what the authors called ‘prosocial spending’” again, being something for someone else or donating to charity.

The anthropologist Joan Silk has also studied the remarkable degree of altruism among humans. In her words, ‘food sharing and division of labor play an important role in all human societies and cooperation extends beyond the bounds of close kinship and networks of reciprocating partners.’ She writes that across a range of nonhuman primate species, ‘social bonds seem to enhance the ability to cope with chronic stressors, such as slow social status, or acute stressors, such as the loss of preferred partners…’ Primatologist Dorothy Cheney pushes the argument further. In some cases, she writes, ‘some animals may recognize other individual’s intentions, thus permitting an even higher degree of cooperation. Cheney and her husband, Robert Seyfarth, write in their paper, ‘The evolutionary origins of friendship, that ‘natural selection therefore appears to have favored individuals who are motivated to form long-term bonds per se, not just bonds with kin.’ Social bonds count, and maintaining them by means of kind, giving behaviors toward others in your group is prevalent among humans, as well as among non-humans such as chimpanzees and baboons.

These three evolutionary routes lead to better hunting, better care for the young, and machine-based cooperation that will lead directly to Pffaf’s discussion of brain mechanisms promoting altruism which will be discussed in the next post.

THE ALTRUISTIC BRAIN

January 15, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of an important book by Donald W. Pfaff, Ph.D. with Sandra Sherman. The subtle is “How We are Naturally Good.” Dr. Pfaff writes, “The Altruistic Brain offers a transformative intervention in the ongoing discussion of our underlying behavior toward each other and, indeed, it can explain benevolent behaviors in general.” He shows how the brain is wired to propel us toward empathic behavior and feelings leading to altruistic behaviors. He also shows how this knowledge of our brain’s wiring can, in turn, add to our capacity for benevolence. This new scientific theory captures the latest neuroscience research that can be applied to everyday life. It can not only explain why we are good, but also help make us better. He focuses on everyday kindness and decency which, when multiplied by billions of such acts in the course of 24 hours, can make our days livable. It makes us inclined to see the goodness in, and value of, our neighbors. Ultimately, it lends power to the sort of group dynamic required for the large-scale actions that modern societies must undertake, and that are necessary to create both a viable sociopolitical regime and, ultimately, a livable planet.

Neurobiologists have spent lifetimes studying cells in a primitive part of the of the brain called the hypothalamus. Hypothalamic cells regulate eating, drinking, and even fighting…all behaviors that are essentially “selfish.” However, at the same time evolutionary biologists affirm that our base instincts have real value for helping individuals and our species to survive. Scientists have also done extraordinary work on the origins of sharing and cooperation in early hominids.

Apart from evolutionary biologists, the average person would likely say that there is a perpetual struggle between good and evil, that is, a 50-50-ness somehow wired into the nature of things. So for every 9/11—full of fanaticism, brutality, and hate—there are stories of first responders, willing to give up their lives to pull strangers from the rubble. For those seeking to make progress on defining our capacity to resist temptation, false ideology, and greed, the question is: where do we find the raw materials that make up a more benign version of human nature?

Dr. Pfaff writes, “It turns out these new materials are in our brains. The human brain is actually programmed to make us care for others. Many of our basic drives, reactions, and skills are more products of nature than of nurture. The innate biology of the human brain compels us to be kind. That is, we are wired for goodwill.

The notion of empathy is a concept that generally means the capacity to perceive and share feelings as experienced by others. Empathy is not simply a generalized benevolence, but a specific response to another person (or group) engendered by a defined, immediate situation. Empathy requires an emotional and cognitive connection. In The Altruistic Brain, Dr. Pfaff examines the unmediated response of one human being to another, a potential that is wired into everybody’s brain.

Dr. Pfaff is a neuroscientist and claims that neuroscience is the only science possessing the capacity to explain exactly how or why humans can regularly behave in a good and ethical way. Neuroscience starts from the premise that all of our social behaviors are products of the human mind, and that the brain is the organ of the mind. He proposes the Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT), which considers how the brain actually produces altruistic behavior.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part presents evidence for Altruistic Brain Theory. The first chapter discussed the biological/revolutionary roots of altruism. The second chapter introduces ABT. The third chapter presents the primary neuroscience research underlying each step of ABT. The fourth chapter discusses the neural and hormonal mechanisms that promote prosocial behaviors once an ethical decision is made. The fifth chapter presents new neuroscience research that provided the theory’s link to an ethical universal.

The second part is focused in implementation: Improving performance of the moral brain and removing obstacles to good behavior. The sixth chapter discusses how ABT changes our perceptions of ourselves and of altruism. Chapter seven addresses why the altruistic brain matters: its significance to addressing individuals’ bad behavior. Chapter 8 discusses the multiplier effect: from bad to worse in a social setting. And the concluding chapter admits that there are no easy answers, but no reason for pessimism either.

Before proceeding to first part, the next post will present Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT).

The Anatomy of Grief

January 14, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a book by psychologist Dorothy P. Holinger. Holinger helps readers find meaning and solace inside the intricate and never-ending process of bereavement. She encourages us to grieve, warning that “grief that is blocked from emotional expression may be experienced in the body. She writes that sorrow leaves changes in the heart. “When grief has run its course, it will eventually calm,” she writes. “And the will to live a life that has changed will take over.”
The preceding was taken from the Health Scan Thanatology section in the Health and Science section of the 12 January 2021 issue of The Washington Post titled, “How mourning can affect us mentally and even physically, such as in blood pressure and sleep.”

To this good advice, HM would add meditation. Meditation can provide some relief from grief and suggest different ways to interpret the meaning of death.

Domestic Terrorism

January 13, 2021

The assault on the Capitol Building, which Donald Trump called his supporters to wage, is too egregious for this to be ignored by this blog. This is true terrorism that is an assault on American democracy. To examine these terrorists in healthy memory terms, it is clear that these people are solely System 1 processors. System 1 is emotional and requires no cognitive effort. The reason that conspiracies like QAnon are so popular, is that they avoid any obstacles caused by critical, System 2, thinking, and provide explanations for everything. Democracies require critical thinking, not unexamined beliefs, if they are to survive.

Absent System 2 processing, what is left is ignorance and stupidity. Consider the Coronavirus pandemic. The United States has one of the worse performances dealing with this pandemic. Republicans who follow Trump, believe that it is a hoax and the answer is herd immunity, a concept which is rarely followed for human beings. Consequently, these people refuse to wear masks, which has greatly exacerbated the pandemic. These people think they have the right not to wear a mask and to infect fellow humans. Republicans don’t believe in science and resent expertise. Beliefs that provide the death knell for democracy.

These assaults, both intellectual assaults on science and reason, and physical assaults on humans and facilities, will continue. What is most depressing is that roughly half of the Republicans support this terrorism. These people physically attack anyone or any idea they don’t like. So how can these people be persuaded?

Obviously, those who break the law can be arrested and prosecuted. This experience might be uncomfortable enough that some will come to understand the error of their ways and be persuaded to be more circumspect and engage their System 2 processes. But there are limitations here as to how many people can be arrested and how many can be persuaded to begin thinking and stop believing outrageous ideas.

It is difficult to believe that anyone with the intelligence to read this blog can believe that the election was stolen from Trump. There have been many independent investigations documenting that the election results are correct. Trump lost both the popular vote and the vote of the electoral college. Yet his supporters continue to believe these obvious lies.

Of course, the first order of business is to eliminate domestic terrorism. But the larger, more important, and more difficult order of business will be to convince people to use their minds and accept not only the results of the election, but also science and expertise. Both science and expertise are required if democracies are to survive.

On Corruption in America

January 11, 2021

The preceding two posts titled Jesus and Socrates were based on a book written by Sarah Chayes titled On Corruption in America. The subtitle is And What is at Stake. The remainder of this book is too depressing to review. Moreover, the title is misleading as this corruption is not confined to America; it is world wide. The world is ruled by kleptocracies that cross national borders. It is comprised of the second type of wealth discussed in the preceding two posts, the type of wealth that is limitless and leads to corruption.

This second type of wealth does not need to lead to corruption. Bill and Melinda Gates are extremely wealthy but are using this wealth and their brains to address the problems and suffering in the world. Unfortunately, they are the exception and not the rule. Donald Trump typifies the evils of the second type of wealth. His wealth he accrues for himself and his greed is limitless. The primary purpose of his presidency was to increase his personal wealth and prestige, the welfare of the country be damned.

The parable of the Two Wolves captures the basis of the difference between Trump and the Gates:

One evening an Old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle
that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy jealousy,
sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment,
inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
“ The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity,
humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth,
compassion, and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his
grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

It is quite apparent that the evil wolf is dominating the behavior of too many humans. But as the parable shows, it is the good wolf that leads to happiness. This point is made in the healthy memory post Trump vs. a Buddhist Monk.

There are many blog posts on the benefits of the behavior of the good wolf. The posts based on the Art of Happiness provide further advice on how best to pursue happiness. To find them enter [The Art of Happiness] into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com.

This current post concludes with an uplifting speech by Robert Kennedy when he was running for President.

RFK on the GDP

Our Gross National Product…if we judge the United States of America by that…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities….Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of our education or the the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Unfortunately RFK was assassinated during this presidential run.

Jesus

January 10, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in ON CORRUPTION IN AMERICA and What is at Stake by Sara Chayes. The following is taken directly from the text: “And Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
It is a remarkable event, Christ’s journey toward crucifixion. And money is center stage.”

Continuing, “It is one of the few happenings in the life of Christ that appears in almost identical terms in all of the gospels. Mark, Matthew, and Luke place the episode toward the end of the tale, when Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time, the prelude to his Passion. He does this thing shortly before he is tried and convicted and crucified, John, who wrote later and rearranged events in order of their importance as he saw it, puts this drama right up top.”

Here is a comment from a pastor: “As opposed to going after some individual kingpin, Jesus is going after the system, The whole operation, the whole temple setup being a den of thieves. They’ve lost the plot. The poor can’t participate, can’t even be considered righteous, because “without money to pay for the sacrificial animals, they can’t uphold the law.”

Another pastor responses “Under ancient Hebrew law, you offered up a lamb at Passover that you had raised yourself. It had to be a beautiful lamb, that spring’s most flawless. Maybe you had helped the laboring ewe, sliding your hands inside her body. You lavished care on that lamb. But no other would do. The point was not the market value of the offering, it was that loving care.”

Continuing, “Under Levitical law, the priests took their share. But the rest of the sacrifice was for the people. By Jesus’s day, that tradition had fallen away. You didn’t raise your lamb, you bought it, You no longer gave a tenth your annual yield as a sacred offering to the whole community on that holy day. You had to count out its equivalent in coin. Some small farmers had to mortgage their crops or their very land to get the money. Some had no land to mortgage and, penniless, were in effect excommunicated: excluded from the polis.”

Continuing further, “The new rules meant everyone was robbing God. The high priests and the Sanhedrin [the high court], because they were organizing the trade, The market people, because they were cheating. And the comfortable classes, because they liked the convenience. Those with means no longer had to bother with the nurture of newborn sheep. For those without, the monetary obligation was so heavy as to end their lives as independent members of the community.

The author writes, “This system, which drove an outraged Lamb of God to commit a violent act, had turned a sacred, deeply humanizing ritual on its head. Instead of bringing the community together on the basis of sharing and equality, it had become a brutal portcullis locking most members out.”

Continuing, “To make their Passover offering, it wasn’t enough for pilgrims to bring their hard-won coins. They had to go through more steps, exchanging money for special tokens and then trading the tokens in for the required lamb or done. Who knows what sleight of hand multi poked the cost at each transaction” For the yearly tithe, people had to convert the local currency they had scraped together into the shekels from a neighboring country, Tyre. It would be like American being required to pay the IRS in euros.”

Continuing further, “Indeed the Gospels frame this episode as the fatal turning point in Jesus’s life. It was not his summons to ordinary people to love their neighbors that enraged the power structure. It was not his own version of the archaic sacrifice: the egalitarian meat-sharing ritual at which miraculous loaves and fishes were divided up among his followers, thus forging them into a community. It was this dramatic act. It was only after the Prince of Peace threw their money on the ground that the high priests and the bankers started looking for a way to kill him.”

Aristotle

January 9, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in ON CORRUPTION IN AMERICA and What is at Stake by Sara Chayes. Chayes writes, “In Politics, the philosopher tries to distinguish between two modes of “property-getting.” One, in his view, is “in accordance with nature.” In that category he places gathering the goods needed to ensure that the family or community has a comfortable standard of living. “Goods, that is, which may be stored up, as being necessary for providing livelihood, or useful to household or state.” Wealth of this sort—jars of oil, flocks of sheep, shoes, or building stones—might be considered “natural” wealth.

To Aristotle, “wealth in the true sense consists of property such as this. For the amount of property of this kind which would give self-sufficiency for a good life is not limitless.”

That idea is key. The wealth that matters, Aristotle is implying, is a good and fulfilling life. And there’s only so much stuff you need to fashion one. This is also the type of property the requires loving care, like God’s lamb. A fig tree won’t produce sweet fruit if it isn’t tended. Could that tending itself have a place in the good life.

There is a different “technique of acquiring goods,” however. This other is “concerned primarily with coin.” The aim is to “enable one to see where a great deal of money may be procured.” Not just to acquire something of need, but to discover, “where and how the greatest profits might be made out of the exchanges.” What had been a means—for facilitating the trades that a good life might require—becomes the end in itself.”

And here’s the crucial difference: “There is indeed no limit to the amount of riches to be got from this mode of acquiring goods.” For Aristotle, this is the terrible aspect of what he calls “unnatural wealth,” or money made from money. There is no getting enough of it.

This is a face of money that horrified his contemporaries. Unlike any other pleasure, money provokes a bottomless desire. Aristophanes was a playwright born around 450 BC, about sixty-five years before Aristotle. A routine in his slapstick comedy, Wealth puts it baldly:
“No one can ever get enough of you!” the main character, Chremylus, exclaims to the god Wealth, who doesn’t seem to understand his own power. “You can have too much of everything else,” he tries to make Wealth see, then launches into a duet with his slave. You can have too much sex, he says. Too many rolls of bread, counters his slave. Too much music. Too much lentil soup. But no one can have too much money. “So far, there’s never been anyone who ever had enough of you! Give someone thirteen talents and he’ll want sixteen. Put sixteen in his pocket and he’ll yell for forty…Then he’ll start [whining] that he can’t survive on that!’

Aristotle had it right. He put his finger on the key distinction. A generous living for households and communities is indeed a blessing. Gaining that is a natural ambition contained within natural limits. It entails lavish loving care on the sources of the abundance. It calls for foresight, the knowledge of how to nurture and help regenerate those sources, not just use them up. Nothing about this kind of wealth threatens us today.

It is the “unnatural’ ambition, the one Aristotle found to be “concerned primarily with coin,” that is the mortal danger to us all: the ambition of the speculators and the superrich to keep making money from their money, to achieve infinite, ever-growing wealth. Left to them our one planet and all its life and its loves and beauties will be chewed up and spat out as cold, hard cash. Or, these days, as flashing electronic signals.

Though many of us bemoan the role money has come to occupy in our culture. I’m still not sure we understand the true dimensions of the peril. In 2012, Donald Trump coauthored a book called Midas Touch: Why Some Entrepreneurs Get Rich—and Why Most Don’t. Like Trump, we have misunderstood the myth. Americans have contracted the Midas disease, but we haven’t realized it’s a curse.

Managing Emotions

January 8, 2021

It is extremely important that we mange our emotions. When we can anticipate a situation that will upset us or make us angry, we should prepare in advance for the situation. However, sometimes an unanticipated situation confronts us that makes us lose our temper. These are situations where, being caught by surprise, we lose control of our emotions.

It is important not to lose touch with our emotions and to try to be prepared. Awareness is key here. Simply noticing our physical sensations can assist us in controlling our emotions. We need to monitor our bodies and stay aware of what is happening to us internally. If we notice that our body is responding to stress, we’re in a better position to take action to shift our internal state, which can help us to interact more effectively.

It is our sympathetic nervous system that is the source of the problem. One of the most effective ways to cope here is through a process called grounding to establish and focus. Breathing is one of the easiest ways to ground.

When we breathe slowly (6-10 breaths per minute is optimal) we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system that returns our body to a state of equilibrium. Try putting your hands on your stomach, then feel your belly extend when you inhale, and move back toward your body as you breathe out. This is called diaphragmatic breathing. This deep breathing is especially helpful.

It is suggested that you might think of this slow, deep breathing as “bubble breathing” because it’s how our breath works when we blow bubbles. The good news is that we breathe all the time, so we can use this tool without it being obvious to a person you’re in dialogue with. Ideally, you’ll practice when you are not in dialogue so you can use bubble breath effectively when you need it.

When you are actually in dialogue with someone, all you need to do is (a) remember to breathe and (b) breathe. The more you practice the easier it will be to do. You might find it helpful to imagine you’re blowing bubbles, both to deepen you breathing and to help lighten the intensity of the experience. Breathing deeply, slowly, and rhythmically will calm you. It will help you feel safer and more able to engage with other people.

Here is a practice for bubble breathing:
At first, simply bring your attention to your breath. Don’t try to change your breathing, just be aware of it. Notice the pace of your breath; Are your breathing quickly, slowly, or somewhere in between? How deep is your breath? Are you breathing into your lungs or all the way down into your abdomen?
Now, try blowing some bubbles. If you don’t have any handy, you can imagine blowing bubbles. As you blow, notice the pace and depth of your breath. Are there any changes? Many people notice that when they blow bubbles, their breath is slow and deep.
Next, practice without the bubbles, Count to 5 as you inhale, and then count to 5 as you exhale. This will keep your breath slow and steady. Notice the feeling of your breath through your nose or across your lips. Try to deepen your breath into your abdomen. You can place your hands on your belly to feel the air pushing your stomach out as you inhale, and releasing your stomach inward as you exhale.
Finally, picture yourself in a heated conversation with someone across political lines. Imagine what they are saying, the tone and volume of their speech, and how they look. Now notice your breathing and any tension in your body. Either with or without bubbles, try to slow and deepen your breathe while continuing to imagine this heated conversation. See if you can keep this image in your mind while breathing slowly and into your abdomen.
Practice bubble breathing when you notice tension in your body will help you prepare to calm yourself during dialogue across political lines or in any stressful situation.

Grounding can also be achieved by focusing on physical sensations. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by emotions, paying attention to the body can help you shift into the present moment. Simply noticing your body’s contact with the floor or a chair can help your body stay out of fight-flight-freeze. You can also bring attention to the feeling of your hands resting in your lap or folded around each other, and then you can put some gentle pressure on your legs or give your hands a little squeeze to ground yourself. Grounding techniques can be useful for people who are experiencing post traumatic stress, as well as other overpowering emotional states, and you may find it useful if dialogue starts to feel too intense. It’s helpful to practice these techniques on your own so that you’re prepared to implement them when faced with political conflict. Mindfulness meditation can be an effective way to strengthen you ability to ground yourself in such a stressful situation.

This good advice is taken from an exceptionally good book on this topic by Tania Israel, Ph.D. titled Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect across the Political Divide

Having a Sense of Meaning in Life May Aid Longevity

January 7, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Marta Zaraska in the Health & Science Section of the 5 January 2021 issue of the Washington Post. The Japanese, a people known for their longevity, have a word for living a life with meaning, ikigai. There have been many previous posts on this topic. To find them enter ikigai into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com. Ikigai is seen as having such measurable effects on longevity that Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare has included it in the official health promotion strategy. In one epidemiological study conducted on over 43,000 Japanese, not having ikigai was linked to a 60% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables per day can cut the danger of succumbing to cardiovascular disease by “just” 27%. Elderly Japanese talk about ikigai as “taking care of grandchildren,” “volunteering,” keeping their street clean and pretty.

In the past 10 to 15 years there has been an explosion of research linking well-being in its many forms to numerous indicators of health. Research has shown that people who have high levels of purpose in life spend fewer nights in hospitals, have lower odds of developing diabetes and over two times lower risk of dying from heart conditions than do others.

Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, hypothesized that high purpose gives people a will to stay alive. Research is now catching up with that idea. When researchers control for health-related behaviors, the strong effects of meaning on longevity still persist.

The explanation may lie in part in how having purpose in life affects our stress response. In lab experiments, when volunteers are made anxious stress markers, such as the hormone cortisol, tend to spike. But those who report high levels of purpose, “calm down more quickly,” says Eric Kim, psychologist at the University of British Columbia.

Similar stress-buffering effects of meaning have been found in research using functional MRI scans, which found that when people report having a high level of purpose are shown disturbing negative images, such as those of plane crashes and burned cars, their brain’s fear center, the amygdala, doesn’t activate as much as it does in people who report a lower sense of purpose.

Unfortunately, 4 out of 10 American haven’t yet managed to find a purpose in life. Aristotle talked about a lifelong pursuit of “virtuous activity of the soul.” 21st-century psychologists talk about having a sense of direction. In a more precise scale developed by Ryff and her colleagues, having purpose means answering “yes” to questions such as “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.” and “no” to “I sometimes feel as if I’ve done all there is to do in life.”

It is possible to boost our sense of meaning and purpose through simple interventions, such as volunteering. Kim says, “People do increase their sense of compassion and really do get new world views as they volunteer, that might actually help make the soul “warmer.” He thinks mindfulness or joining a group of people who share your values could also help you find meaning. He thinks mindfulness [enter “mindfulness” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com, to find relevant posts] or joining a group [repeat instructions for mindfulness].

There are some indications that Americans and Europeans may be engaging in more purpose-creating behaviors during this pandemic than they did before covid-19 hit. News accounts say charity donations are up both in the United States and Britain. According to a study done by IPSOS, almost half of Americans checked in on elderly or sick neighbors when the pandemic began, while 20% potentially expose themselves to the virus to help people.

In an Irish survey, 57% of those responding said they were now reevaluating their lives. During the spring lockdown in France, as in many cities and towns around the world, clapped and banged on pots to cheer for doctors and nurses for 52 days straight, rain or shine. It made people feel connected, purposeful.

The author concludes, “If we keep such things going, if we find purpose and meaning in the current gloom, we may end up not just happier but healthier and longer-lived—and perhaps more resilient in the face of covid-19 stress, too.

Laughing is Seriously Good for You

January 6, 2021

The title of this post is similar to the title of an article by Janet M. Gibson in the Health & Science Section of the 8 December 2020 issue of The Washington Post. Laughter has the power to enhance physical and mental well being. Either laughing or observing it activates multiple regions of the brain: the motor cortex, which controls muscles; the frontal lobe, which helps us understand context; and the limbic system, which modulates positive emotions. Turning all these circuits on strengthen neural connections and helps a healthy brain coordinate its activity.

By activating the neural pathways of emotions like joy and mirth, laughter can improve mood and make our physical and emotional response to stress less intense. Laughing may help control brain levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, similar to what antidepressants do. By minimizing your brain’s responses to threats, it limits the release of neurotransmitters and hormones like cortisol that can wear down your cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems over time. Laughter’s kind of like an antidote to stress, which weakens these systems and increases vulnerability to diseases.

A good sense of humor and the laughter that follows depend on an ample measure of social intelligence and working memory resources. Laughter, like humor, typically sparks from recognizing the incongruities or absurdities of a situation. You need to mentally resolve the surprising behavior or event—otherwise you won’t laugh; you might just be confused instead. Inferring the intentions of others and taking their perspective can enhance the intensity of the laugher and amusement we feel.

To “get” a joke or humorous situation, you need to be able to see the lighter side of things. You must be able to believe that other possibilities beside the literal exist. Think about about being amused by comic strips with talking animals, such as those found in “The Far Side.”

Many cognitive and social skills work together to help us monitor when and why laughter occurs during conversations. You don’t need to hear a laugh to be able to laugh. Deaf signers punctuate their signed sentences with laughter, much like emoticons in written text.

Laughter creates bonds and increases intimacy with others. Linguist Don Nilsen points out that chuckles and belly laughs seldom happen when alone, supporting their strong social role. Beginning early in life, infant laughter is an external sigh of pleasure that helps strengthen bonds with caregivers.

Later, it’s an external sign of sharing an appreciation of the situation. For example, public speakers and comedians try to get a laugh to make audiences feel psychologically closer to them, to create intimacy.

By practicing a little laughter each day, you can enhance social skills that may not come naturally to you. When you laugh in response to humor, you share your feelings with others and learn from risks that your response will be accepted/shared/enjoyed by others and not be rejected/ignored/disliked.

In studies, psychologists have found that men with Type A personality characteristics, including competitiveness and time urgency, tend to laugh more, while women with those traits laugh less. Both sexes laugh more with others than when alone.

Positive psychology researchers study how people can live meaningful lives and thrive. Laughter produces positive emotions that lead to this kind of flourishing. These feelings—like amusement, happiness, mirth and joy, build resiliency and increase creativity thinking. They increase subjective well-being and life satisfaction. Researchers find that these positive emotions experienced with humor and laughter correlate with appreciating the meaning of life and help older adults hold a benign view of difficulties they’ve faces over a lifetime.

Laughter in response to amusement is a healthy coping mechanism. When you laugh, you take yourself or the situation less seriously and may feel empowered to problem-solve. For example, psychologists measured the frequency and intensity of 41 people’s laughter over two weeks, along with their rating of physical and mental stress. They found that the more laughter experienced, the lower the reported stress. Whether the instances of laughter were strong, medium, or weak in intensity didn’t matter.

Should you want to grab some of these benefits for yourself—can you forces laughter to work for you?

A growing number of therapists advocate using humor and laughter to help clients build trust and improve work environments; a review of five different studies found that measures of well-being did increase after laughter interventions. Sometimes called homeplay instead of homework, these interventions take the form of daily humor activities—surrounding yourself with funny people, watching a comedy that makes you laugh or writing down three funny things that happened today.

You can practice laughing even when alone. Intentionally take a perspective that appreciates the funny side of events. Laughing yoga is a technique of using breathing muscles to achieve positive physical responses of natural laughing with forced laughter (ha-ha,he-he, ho-ho).

Researchers today certainly aren’t laughing off its value, but a good deal of the research on laughter’s influence on mental and physical health is based on self-report measures. More psychological experiments around laughter or the contexts in which it occurs will likely support the importance of laughing throughout your day, and maybe even suggest more ways to intentionally harness its effects.

Janet M. Gibson is a professor of psychology at Grinnell College. She has written the book An Introduction to the Psychology of Humor.

To Really Remember, Don’t Cram

January 5, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto in the Health & Science Section of the 1 December 2020 Washington Post. The article quotes studies that say that cramming may lead to better outcomes on test day than the same number of study hours would, spread out. But in the long run, the advantage spaced-out study strategies assert themselves. Much of what crammers learn, they quickly forget, while spacers tend to retain what they learned.

This is true and is an empirical result. What follows is a way to think about your memory and how memory consolidation functions take place. A good way to think of your mind is as an organized company. At the top of the building are the executive suites. These is where your conscious mind resides. When you are actively studying this studying takes place in your conscious mind. But remember, you total mind is very large and most of it is out of conscious awareness. And just like a real company most of the work takes place by the staff. So realize that most learning is taking place below the level of your conscious mind. The working staff is taking orders from the conscious mind to process this stuff for later use.

So one reason for not cramming, especially at the last minute, is that it reduces the total time your brain has to process and consolidate this information. Pulling all-nighters makes no sense because virtually no time is left for memory consolidation.

And practice needs to be done retrieving this information from memory. When HM was a student and bought used books with areas highlighted, he wondered how this student used the highlighting. If he did it just to review the information, his study time was not well used. Retrieving information is an important part of studying. Thinking that all that was needed was to encode relevant information and then recognize the information that had been studied are the practices of poor students. You need to examine the book and try to see how much of the information you can retrieve. Even if it is just a multiple choice test, retrieving the information will provide higher quality memories.

Emotional Intelligence Predicts Academic Performance: A Meta-Analysis

January 4, 2021

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article in the Psychological Bulletin, Vol 146, No. 2 by McCann, C. et al. These researchers analyzed data from 158 studies representing more than 42,529 students ranging in age from elementary school to college from 27 countries. They found that students with higher emotional intelligence earned better grades and scored higher on achievement tests that those with lower emotional intelligence. This finding maintained even when controlling for intelligence and personality factors, and the association held regardless of age. The researchers think that students with higher emotional intelligence succeed because they cope well with negative emotions that can harm academic performance; they form stronger relationships with teachers, peers, and family; and their knowledge of human motivations and social interactions helps them understand humanities subject matter.

You can find many healthy memory blog posts on this topic. Just enter emotional intelligence into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com.

There is much evidence that including teaching regarding emotions and mindfulness should be a required subject in virtually every curriculum.

Five Tips for Dealing with Pandemic Frustration

January 3, 2021

These five tips come from an article by Steven Petrow in the Health & Science section of the 15 December 2020 issue of the Washington Post.

*Find ways to adopt. Try home exercise routines, practice good sleep hygiene and make small dietary changes. It’s better to take a step in the right direction than thinking it’s all or nothing—and then doing nothing.

*Stay connected with people, even if physically distant. Social support provides a buffer against stress. There is text and email, videoconferencing , and socially distant walks.

*Moderate your video consumption. Stay informed but don’t be overwhelmed by negative news. Consider a “media fast” for a day or two, or set limits on when you read or listen, like first thing in the morning. Choose reputable sources (avoid right wing media that promote lies).

*HM recommends staying off social media.

*Talk about how your are feeling with friends, family or a professional. There is no shame in asking for help when you need it.

HM strongly recommends meditation. Should you need information go to healthymemory.wordpress.com and enter “meditation” into the search block.

And remember to wear your mask and to socially distance.
Take a vaccine when it becomes available.

WE NEED TO DEFEAT THIS PANDEMIC!

Mammals vs. Mammals with Reptilian Brains

January 2, 2021

HM viewed an amazing Nature video on television the other evening. It was about how well different mammalian species can get along. There was footage of a cheetah and a coyote who were raised together as pups. And when they became adults they still played together even though the cheetah could have easily killed and eaten the coyote. They showed many other similar examples.

There were other examples of blind animals being taken care of by animals of different species. For example, there was a case of a goat serving as a virtual seeing eye dog for a horse who had gone blind. There were many examples of inter-species interactions and examples of compassion for animals of different species.

This made HM wonder about how humans can have difficulty interacting with members of their own species. There appear to be some humans who behave as if they had reptilian brains. Their sensors are always on the lookout for conspecifics who are unlike them. They hate and fear them, discriminate against them, and sometimes physically attack them. They appear to be void of human emotions like compassion and empathy. Their general intelligence also seems to more closely resemble reptiles rather than humans. They refuse to adopt practices to slow and stop the pandemic. And they spread misinformation about the pandemic. Plus they ignore the obvious and plentiful information that their candidate did not win the presidential election, and are taking actions that would destroy American Democracy!

New Year’s Resolutions

December 31, 2020

Much can be accomplished if these resolutions are kept. Unfortunately, very few of them are. It is important to realize that costs are involved in adhering to these resolutions. Will power is finite and easily depleted. In the past, HM has recommended two resolutions. One should be easy to accomplish to assure yourself that there will be one in the win column. And the second should be more challenging but still being capable to achieve.

Use the pandemic to help you accomplish your resolutions. This will serve the dual purposes of dealing with the pandemic and achieving personal growth.

It should not be surprising that growth mindsets are recommended as a source for resolutions. Commit yourself to growing in an area of interest, or you can review the wikipedia. Go to wikipedia.org and then follow where that leads your interest.

Another suggestion for a resolution is in the area of spiritual growth. Meditation provides both a tool and an end goal regarding resolutions.

Good luck!

HAPPY NEW YEAR 2021!

This is the 2000th Post!

December 18, 2020

The healthymemory blog began on 17 October 2009. In addition to providing posts about human memory, it also presented specific memory techniques. It also discussed transactive memory which includes memories stored in technology and in our fellow humans. Initially, most of the posts on this topic were positive explaining how technology could greatly enhance human memory. Over time the number of negative posts increased. Technology is being used to spread disinformation.

The distinction between Kahneman’s Two Processing Systems concept of cognition has been prominent throughout most of the life of this blog. System 1 processing is our default mode of processing, is very fast, and requires negligible cognitive effort. System 2 processing requires cognitive effort and is used during learning and critical thinking.

Another recurring theme in this blog is Alzheimer’s disease. The defining characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease are the amyloid plaque and the neurofibrillary tangles that develop in the brain. Most of the research efforts are targeted at eliminating or preventing these plaques and tangles. However, what is rarely mentioned is that autopsies done on certain people have revealed the presence of these defining characteristics of Alzheimer’s, yet, while alive, these people exhibited none of the cognitive or behavioral characteristics of Alzheimer’s. The reason offered is that these individual’s had developed a cognitive reserve as a result of their learning and critical thinking throughout their lifetimes. The notion advanced by this blog is that it is System 2 processing that builds this cognitive reserve. After formal education and learning required for their jobs, many people become System 1 processors almost exclusively. They seek news and information sources that will not challenge their thinking. The clearest example of this regards Trump’s attempt to win a second term. He clearly lost, but he maintained that he had won and that the victory had been taken from him. He made numerous challenges and brought many court cases, all of which were rejected. Yet most Republicans continued to support him along with his standard followers. Unfortunately most right wing media supported him. They did not risk any recriminations as the Supreme Court has made the perverse decision that lying is acceptable free speech. It has been the prediction of this blog that this is an example of System 1 processing run amok and predicts that the incidence of Alzheimer’s will greatly increase in the future.

This blog strongly advocates growth mindsets and continual learning throughout one’s lifetime. This will not only assist in defeating Alzheimer’s and dementia, but would lead to a richer and fuller life and in the election of leaders who will benefit the welfare of the country. It should be mentioned that having a healthy lifestyle is also critically important in preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s.

This blog has recently added a Positivity category for posts. This is due to research showing the benefits of a positive mental attitude. Specific techniques are provided including meditation. The importance of spirituality to a healthy memory has been added.

With the Christmas season celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ approaching we should remember and live by his teachings regarding love and compassion. The healthy memory blog will be taking a break during this holiday season, but it shall return in time for New Year’s resolutions.

Recalling Fond Memories

December 17, 2020

This post is inspired by an article in the Health & Science Section in the 24 November Issue of the Washington Post by Bob Brody. Brody calls this his mental health strategy and this is a strategy for the entire year not just for Thanksgiving. He compiles a highlights reel featuring the moments in his life that he holds most dear.

Flashing back on the memorable moments serves a special purpose. If you’re feeling low, it will pick you up. If you’re asking yourself what your life has meant, it will hint at an answer. And if you’re lucky, it will remind you of a life well lived. And should you conclude that your life is falling short of its potential, then this can serve as a source of motivation to make the best of your remaining years.

Recent research suggests that such a practice can be good for you, a benefit to your mental health and general well-being. One study found that recalling happy memories can lower our levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Another showed that training people to recall happy memories can lower the risk of depression.

Some psychologists believe that envisioning favorite experiences from our past can inject our lives with fresh meaning and optimism. This visualization exercise, similar to lucid dreaming—the act of dreaming consciously—can enable us to cope better with our concerns about death and inspire us about our futures. Retrieving these images can, as a bonus, reinforce those memories.

Delip Jeste, past president of the American Psychiatric Association and author of “Wisdom: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good”, says that bringing back memories can be useful, even beautiful, especially during stressful times such as a pandemic. Anyone can do this. You can make movies for yourself, recreating something that actually happened, without even being a movie producer.

Jeste continues, “Remembering your favorite experiences can give you a sense of some control, even during a crisis. You can feel closer to your loved ones. And the benefits are physical too. Creating your own virtual reality can lower inflammation and improve your immune system.

Meditation on the Nature of the Mind

December 16, 2020

This is the last section in The Art of Happiness. The Dalai Lama speaks:

“The purpose of this exercise is to begin to recognize and get a feel for the nature of the mind, at least on a conventional level. Generally, when we refer to our ‘mind,’ we are talking about an abstract concept. Without having a direct experience of our mind, for example, if we are asked to identify the mind, we may be compelled to merely point to the brain. Or, if we are asked to define the mind, we may say it is something that has the capacity to ‘know,’ something that is ‘clear’ and ‘cognitive.’ But without having directly grasped the mind through meditative practices, these definitions are just words. It’s important to be able to identify the mind through direct experience, not just as an abstract concept. So the purpose of this exercise is to be able to directly feel or grasp the conventional nature of the mind, so when you say the mind has qualities of ‘clarity’ and ‘cognition,’ you will be able identify it through experience, not just as an abstract concept.

“This exercise helps you to deliberately stop the discursive thought and gradually remain in that state for longer and longer duration. As you practice this exercise, eventually you will get to a feeling as if there is nothing there, a sense of vacuity. But if you go further, you eventually begin to recognize the underlying nature of the mind, the qualities of ‘clarity’ and ‘knowing.’ It is similar to having a pure crystal glass full of water. If the water is pure, you can see the bottom of the glass, but you still recognize that the water is there.

“So, today, let us meditate on nonconceptuality. This is not a mere state of dullness or a blanked out state of mind. Rather what you should do is, first of all, generate the determination that ‘I will maintain a state without conceptual thoughts.’ The way in which you should do that is this:

“Generally speaking our mind is predominantly directed towards external objects. Our attention follows after the sense experiences. It remains at a predominantly sensory and conceptual level. In other words, normally our awareness is directed towards physical sensory experiences and mental concepts. But in this exercise, what you should do is to draw your mind inward; don’t let it chase after or pay attention to sensory objects. At the same time, don’t allow it to be so totally withdrawn that there is a kind of dullness or lack of mindfulness. You should maintain a very full state of alertness and mindfulness, and then try to see the natural state of your consciousness—a state in which your consciousness is not afflicted by thoughts of the past, the things that have happened, your memories and remembrances; nor is it afflicted by thoughts of the future, like your future plans, anticipations, fears, and hopes. But, rather, try to remain in a natural and neutral state.

“This is like a river that is flowing quite strongly, in which you cannot see the river bed very clearly. If, however, there was some way you could stop the flow in both directions, from where the water is coming to where the water is flowing, then you could keep the water still. That would allow you to see the base of the river quite clearly. Similarly, when you are able to stop your mind from chasing sensory objects and thinking about the past and future and so on, and when you can free your mind from being totally ‘blanked out’ as well, then you will begin to see underneath this turbulence of the thought processes. There is an underlying stillness, an underlying clarity of mind. You should try to observe or experience this…

“This can be very difficult at the initial stage, so let us begin to practice from this very session. At the initial state, when you begin to experience this underlying natural state of consciousness, you might experience it in the form of some sort of ‘absence.’ This is happening because we are so habituated to understanding our mind in terms of external objects; we tend to look at the world through our concepts, images, and so on. So when you withdraw your mind from external objects, it’s almost as if you can’t recognize your mind. There’s a kind of absence, a kind of vacuity. However, as you slowly progress and get used to it, you being to notice an underlying clarity, a luminosity. That’s when you begin to appreciate and realize the natural state of mind.

“Many of the truly profound meditative experiences must come on the basis of this kind of stillness of mind…Oh,” the Dalai Lama laughed, “I should warn that in this type of mediation, since there is no specific object to focus on, there is a danger of falling asleep.

“So, now let us meditate…

“To begin, first draw three rounds of breathing, and focus your attention simply on the breath. Just be aware of inhaling, exhaling, and then inhaling, exhaling—three times. Then, start the meditation.”

The Dalai Lama removed his glasses, folded his hands in his lap, and remained motionless in meditation. Total silence pervaded the hall, as fifteen hundred people turned inward, in the solitude of fifteen hundred private worlds, seeking to still their thought and perhaps catch a glimpse of the true nature of their own mind. After five minutes, the silence was cracked but not broken as the Dalai Lama began to chant softly, his voice low and melodic, gently leading his listeners from their meditation. At the close of the session that day, as always, the Dalai Lama folded his hands together, bowed to his audience and out of affection and respect, made his way through the surrounding crowd. His hands remained clasped together and he continued to bow as he left the room. As he walked through the dense crowd, he bowed so low, in fact, that for anyone who stood more than a few feet away, it was impossible to see him. He appeared to be lost in a sea of hands. From a distance one could still detect his path, however, from the subtle shift in the crowd’s movement as he passed along. It was as if he had ceased to be a visible object and had simply become a felt presence.

Basic Spiritual Values

December 15, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of the final chapter in The Art of Happiness. It begins
“The art of happiness has many components. As we’ve seen, it begins with developing an understanding of the truest sources of happiness and setting our priorities in life based on the cultivation of those sources. It involves an inner discipline, a gradual process of rooting out destructive mental states and replacing them with positive, constructive states of of mind, such as kindness, tolerance, and forgiveness. In identifying the factors that lead to a full and satisfying life, we conclude with a discussion of the final component —-spirituality.

In helping us to understand the true meaning of spirituality, the Dalai Lama began by distinguishing between spirituality and religion:

“I believe that it is essential to appreciate our potential as human beings and recognize the importance of inner transformation. This should be achieved through what could be called a process of mental development. Sometimes, I call this having a spiritual dimension in our life.

“There can be two levels of spirituality. One level of spirituality has to do with religious beliefs. In this world, there are so many different people, so many different dispositions. There are five billion human beings and in a certain way I think we need five billion different religions, because there is such a large variety of dispositions. I believe that each individual should embark on a spiritual path that is best suited to his or her mental disposition, natural inclination, temperament, belief, family, and cultural background.

“All of these religions can make an effective contribution to the benefit of humanity. They’re all designed to make the individual a happier person, and the world a better place. However, in order for the religion to have an impact in making the world a better place, I think it’s important for the individual practitioner to sincerely practice the teaching of that religion. One must integrate the religious teachings into one’s life, wherever one is, so one can use them as a source of inner strength. And one must gain a deeper understanding of the religion’s ideas, not just on an intellectual level our with a deep feeling, making them part of one’s inner experience.

“I believe that one can cultivate a deep respect for all the different religious traditions. One reason to respect these other traditions is that all of these traditions can provide an ethical framework which can govern one’s behavior and have positive effects. For instance, in the Christian tradition a belief in God can provide one with a coherent and a clear-cut ethical framework which can govern one’s behavior and way of life—and it can be a very powerful approach because there is a certain intimacy created in one’s relationship with God, and in the way to demonstrate one’s love of God, the God who created you, is by showing love and compassion to one’s fellow human beings.

“I believe that there are many similar reasons to respect other religious traditions as well. All major religions, of course, have provided tremendous benefit for millions of human beings throughout many centuries in the past. And even at this very moment, millions of people still get a benefit, get some kind of inspiration, from these different religious traditions. It is clear. And in the future also, these different religious traditions will give inspiration to millions of coming generations. That is a fact. So, therefore, it is very, very important to realize that reality and respect other traditions.

‘So, in speaking of having a spiritual dimension to our lives, we have identified our religious beliefs as one level of spirituality. Now regarding religion, if we believe in any religions, that’s food. But even without a religious belief, we can still manage. In some cases, we can manage even better. But that’s our own individual right; if we wish to believe good! If not, it’s all right. But then there’s another level of spirituality. That is what I call basic spirituality—basic human qualities of goodness, kindness, compassion, caring. Whether we are believers or nonbelievers, this kind of spirituality is essential. I personally consider this second level of spirituality to be more important than the first, because no matter how wonderful a particular religion may be, it will still only be accepted by a limited number of human beings, only a portion of humanity. But as long as we are human beings, as long as we are members of the human family, all of us need these basic spiritual values. Without these, human existence remains hard, very dry. As a result, none of us can be a happy person, our whole family will suffer, and then, eventually, society will be more troubled. So, it becomes clear that cultivating these kinds of basic spiritual values becomes crucial.

“All of the virtuous states of mind—compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, caring, and so on—these mental qualities are genuine Dharma, or genuine spiritual qualities, because all of these internal mental qualities cannot coexist with ill feelings or negative states of mind.

“So engaging in training or a method of bringing about inner discipline within one’s mind is the essence of a religious life, an inner discipline that has the purpose of cultivating these positive mental states. Thus, whether one leads a spiritual life depends on whether one has been successful in bringing about the disciplined, tamed state of mind and translating that state of mind into one’s daily actions.

Dealing With Anxiety and Building Self-Esteem

December 14, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in The Art of Happiness. The human brain is equipped with an elaborate system designed to register the emotions of fear and worry. This system serves an important function—it mobilizes us to respond to danger by setting in motion a complex sequence of biochemical and physiological events. The adaptive side of worry is that it allows us to anticipate danger and take preventive action. So, some types of fears and a certain amount of worry can be healthy. However, feelings of fear and anxiety can press and even escalate in the absence of an authentic threat, and when these emotions grow out of proportion to any real danger they become maladaptive. Excessive anxiety and worry can, like anger and hatred, have devastating effects on the mind and body, becoming the source of much emotional suffering and even physical illness.

On a mental level, chronic anxiety can impair judgment, increase irritability, and hinder one’s overall effectiveness. It can also lead to physical problems including depressed immune function, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, fatigue, and muscle tension and pain. Anxiety disorders, for instance, have been shown to cause stunted growth in adolescent girls.

In searching for practical strategies to overcome anxiety, however, there is one technique that stands out as particularly effective: cognitive intervention. This is one of the main methods used by the Dalai Lama to overcome daily worries and anxiety. Applying the same procedure used with anger and hatred this technique involves actively challenging the anxiety-generating thoughts and replacing them with well-reasoned positive thoughts and attitudes.

In the Dalai Lama’s system of training the mind and achieving happiness, the closer one gets to being motivated by altruism, the more fearless one becomes in the face of even extremely anxiety-provoking circumstances. But the same principle can be applied in smaller ways, even when one’s motivation is less than completely altruistic. Standing back and simply making sure that you mean no harm and that your motivation is sincere can help reduce anxiety in ordinary daily situations.

Honesty is proposed as an antidote to low self-esteem or inflated self-confidence. There is a distinction between conceit and valid self—confidence. The Dalai Lama says, this distinction can be judged only in retrospect, either by the individual or from a third person’s perspective. In making the distinction between conceit and valid self-confidence, one could think it terms of the consequences of one’s attitude—conceit and arrogance generally has led to negative consequences whereas a healthy self-confidence leads to more positive consequences. So, here when we are dealing with ‘self-confidence’ you need to look at what is underlying the sense of ‘self.’ I think one can categorize two types. One sense of self, or ‘ego,’ is concerned only with the fulfillment of one’s self-interest, one’s selfish desires, with complete disregard for the well-being of others. The other type of ego or sense of self is based on a genuine concern for others, and the desire to be of service.
He continues, I think that, generally, being honest with oneself and others about what you are or are not capable of doing can counteract that feeling of lack of self-confidence.

Self-hatred seems to be a problem found primarily in western civilization. The Dalai Lama began developing methods for combating it. “From the Buddhist point of view being in a depressed state, in a state of discouragement, is seen as a kind of extreme that can clearly be an obstacle to taking the steps necessary to accomplish one’s goals. A state of self-hatred is even far more extreme than simply being discouraged, and this can be very, very dangerous. For those engaged in Buddhist practice, the antidote to self-hatred would be to reflect upon the fact that all beings, including oneself, have Buddha Nature—the seen or potential for perfection, for Enlightenment—no matter how weak or poor or deprived one’s present situation may be. So those people involved in Buddhist practice who suffer from self-hatred or self-loathing should avoid contemplating the suffering nature of existence or the underlying unsatisfactory nature of existence, and instead they should concentrate more on the positive aspects of one’s existence, such as appreciating the tremendous potential that lies within oneself as a human being. And by reflecting upon these opportunities and potentials, they will be able to increase their sense of worth and confidence in themselves.

They asked what would be the antidote for someone who may not have heard of the concept of Buddha Nature or who may not be a Buddhist, the Dalai Lama responded, “One thinks in general that we could point out to such people is that we are gifted as human beings with this wonderful human intelligence. On top of that, all human beings have the capacity to be very determined and to direct that strong sense of determination in whatever direction they would like to use it. There is no doubt of this. So if one maintains an awareness of these potentials and reminds oneself of them repeated until it becomes a part of one’s customary way of perceiving human beings—including oneself—then this could serve to help reduce feelings of discouragement, helplessness, and self contempt.”

The Dalai Lama continues, “I think that here there might be some sort of parallel to the way we treat physical illness. When doctors treat someone for a specific illness, not only do they give antibiotics for the specific condition, but they also make sure that the person’s underlying physical condition is such that he or she can take antibiotics and tolerate them. So in order to insure that, the doctors make sure, for instance, that the person is generally well nourished, and often they may also have given vitamins or whatever to build the body. So long as the person has the underlying strength in his or her body, then there is the the potential or capacity to heal itself from the illness through medication. Similarly, as long as we know and maintain an awareness that we have this marvelous gift of human intelligence and a capacity to develop determination and use it in positive ways, in some sense we have this underlying mental health. An underlying strength that comes from realizing we have this great human potential. This realization can act as a sort of built-in mechanism that allows us to deal with any difficulty, no matter what situation we are facing, without losing hope or sinking into self-hatred.”

Meditations on Anger

December 13, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in the chapter The Value and Benefits of Compassion in the book The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama.
In many of these discussions, the Dalai Lama’s primary method of overcoming anger and hatred involved the use of reasoning and analysis to investigate the cause of anger, to combat these harmful mental states through understanding. In a sense, this approach can be seen as using logic to neutralize anger and hatred and to cultivate the antidotes of patience and tolerance. But that wasn’t his only technique. In his public talks he supplemented his discussion by presenting instruction on these two simple, yet effective meditations to help overcome anger.

Meditation on Anger: Exercise 1

“Let us imagine a scenario in which someone who you know very well, someone who is close or dear to you, is in a situation in which he or she loses his or her temper. You can imagine this occurring either in a very acrimonious relationship or in a situation in which something is personally upsetting is happening. The person is so angry that he or she has lost all his or her mental composure, creating very negative vibrations, even going to the extent of being himself or herself up or breaking things.

“Then, reflect upon the immediate effects of the person’s rage. You’ll see a physical transformation happening to that person. This person whom you feel close to, whom you like, the very sight of whom gave you pleasure in the past now turns into this ugly person, even physically speaking. The reason why I think you should visualize this happening to someone else is because it is easier to see the faults of others than to see your own faults. So, using your imagination, do this meditation and visualization for a few minutes.

“At the end of that visualization, analyze the situation or relate the circumstances to your own experience. See that you yourself have been in this state many times. Resolve that ‘I shall never let myself fall under the sway of such intense anger and hatred, because if I do that, I will be in the same position. I will also suffer all these consequences, lose my peace of mind, lose my composure, assume this ugly physical appearance,’ and so on. So once you make the decision, then for the last few minutes of the meditation focus your mind on that conclusion; without further analysis, simply let your mind remain on your resolution not to fall under the influence of anger and hatred.”

Meditation on Anger: Exercise 2

“Let us do another meditation using visualization. Begin by visualizing someone whom you dislike, someone who annoys you, causes a lot of problems for you, or gets on your nerves. Then, imagine a scenario in which the person irritates you, or does something that offends you or annoys you. And, in your imagination when you visualize this, let your natural response follow; just let it flow naturally. Then see how you feel, see whether that caused the rate of your heartbeat to go up, and so on. Examine whether you are comfortable or uncomfortable; see if you immediately become more peaceful or if you develop an uncomfortable mental feeling. Judge for yourself, investigate. So for a few minutes, three or four minutes perhaps, judge and experiment. And then at the end of your investigation, if you discover that ‘Yes, it is of no use to allow that irritation to develop. Immediately I lose my peace of mind,’ then say to yourself, ‘In the future, I will never do that.’ Develop that determination. Finally, for the last few minutes of the exercise, place your mind single-pointedly upon that conclusion or determination. So that’s the meditation.”

The Dalai Lama paused for a moment, then looking around the room of sincere students preparing to practice this meditation, he laughed, and added, “ I think if I had the cognitive faculty, ability, or the clear awareness to be able to read other people’s minds, then there would be a great spectacle here!”

There was a ripple of laughter in the audience, which quickly died down as his listeners started the meditation, beginning the serious business of doing battle with their anger.

Dealing With Anger and Hatred

December 12, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in The Art of Happiness.
If one comes across a person who has been shot by an arrow, one does not spend time wondering about where the arrow came from, or the caste of the individual who shot it, or analyzing what type of wood the shaft is made of, or the manner in which the arrowhead was fashioned. Rather, one should focus on immediately pulling out the arrow.
—Shakyamuni, the Buddha

We turn now to some of the “arrows,” the negative states of mind that destroy our happiness, and their corresponding antidotes. All negative mental states act as obstacles to our happiness, but we begin with anger, which seems to be one of the biggest blocks. It is described by the Stoic philosopher Seneca “as the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions.” The destructive effects of anger and hatred have been well document by recent scientific studies. Of course, one doesn’t need scientific evidence to realize how these emotions can cloud our judgment, cause feelings of extreme discomfort, or wreak havoc in our personal relationships. Our personal experience can tell us that. But in recent years, great inroads have been made in documenting the harmful physical effects of anger and hostility. Dozens of studies have shown these emotions to be a significant cause of disease and premature death. Investigators such as Dr. Redford Williams at Duke University and Dr. Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University have conducted studies that demonstrate than anger, rage, and hostility are particularly damaging to the cardiovascular system. So much evidence has mounted about the harmful effects of hostility, in fact, that it is now considered a major risk factor in heart disease, at least equal to, or perhaps greater than the traditionally recognized risk factors such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.

In setting out to conquer anger and hatred, the Dalai Lama begins by investigating the nature of these destructive emotions. “Generally speaking,” he explained, “there are many different levels of afflictive emotions, such as conceit, arrogance jealousy, desire, lust, closed-mindedness, and so on. But of all of these, hatred and anger are considered to be the greatest evils because they are the greatest obstacles to developing compassion and altruism, and they destroy one’s virtue and calmness of mind.”

“In thinking about anger there can be two types. One type of anger can be positive. This would be mainly due to one’s motivation. There can be some anger that is motivated by compassion or a sense of responsibility. Where anger is motivated by compassion, it can be used as an impetus or a catalyst for a positive action. Under these circumstance, human emotions like anger can act as a force to bring about swift action. It creates a kind of energy that enables an individual to act quickly and decisively. It can be a powerful motivating factor. So, sometimes that kind of anger can be positive. All too often, however, even though that kind of anger can act as a kind of protector and bring one extra energy, that energy is also blind, so it is uncertain whether it will become constructive or destructive in the end.”

“So, even though under rare circumstance some kinds of anger can be positive, generally speaking, anger leads to ill feeling and hatred. And, as far as hatred is concerned, it is never positive. It has no benefit. It is always totally negative.

“We cannot overcome anger and hatred simply by suppressing them. We need to actively cultivate the antidotes to hatred: patience and tolerance. In order for you to be able to successfully cultivate patience and tolerance you need to generate enthusiasm, a strong desire to seek it. The stronger your enthusiasm, the greater your ability to withstand the hardships you encounter in the process. When you are engaged in the practice of patience and tolerance, in reality, what is happening is you engaged in a combat with hatred and anger. Since it is a situation of combat, you seek victory, but you also have to be prepared for the possibility of losing the battle. So while you re engaged in combat, you should not lose sight of the fact that in the process you will confront many problems. Someone who gains victory over hatred and anger through such an arduous process is a true hero.

The Dalai Lama concludes, The only factor that can give you refuge or protection from the destructive effects of anger and hatred is your practice of tolerance and patience.

Bringing About Change

December 11, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in The Art of Happiness.
When asked “what would be your approach to overcoming negative behaviors and making positive changes in one’s life?” The Dalai Lama responded.

“The first step involves learning,” education. But in discussing an approach to bringing about positive changes within oneself, learning is only the first step. There are other factors as well: conviction, determination, action, and effort. So the next step is developing conviction. Learning and education are important because they help one develop conviction of the need to change and help increase one’s commitment. This conviction to change then develops into determination. Next one transforms determination into action—the strong determination to change enable one to make a sustained effort to implement actual changes. This final factor of effort is critical.”

“No matter what behavior you are seeking to change, no matter what particular goal or action you are directing your efforts towards, you need to start by developing a strong willingness or wish to do it. You need to generate great enthusiasm. And, here, a sense of urgency is key factor. This sense of urgency is a powerful factor in helping overcome problems.”

“…this sense of urgency can be a vital factor in effecting change. It can give us tremendous energy. For instance, in a political movement, if there is a sense of desperation, there can be a tremendous sense of urgency—so much that the people may even forget that they are hungry, and there is no feeling of tiredness or exhaustion in pursuit of their objectives.

“To overcome apathy and to generate commitment and enthusiasm to overcome negative behaviors or status of mind, once again I think the most effective method, and perhaps the only solution, is to be constantly aware of the destructive effects of the negative behavior.”

“As far as my own spiritual practice goes, if I encounter some obstacles or problems, I find it helpful to stand back and take the long-term view rather than the short-term view. In this regard, I find that thinking about one particular verse gives me courage and helps me sustain my determination. It says:

As long as space endures,
As long as sentient beings remain
May I too live
To dispel the miseries of the world.

Having realistic expectations is also important.
“In bringing about genuine inner transformation and change the Dalai Lama emphasizes the importance of making a sustained effort. It is a gradual process. This is in sharp contrast to the proliferation of “quick fix” self help techniques and therapies that have become some popular in Western culture in recent decades—techniques ranging from “positive affirmations” to ‘discovering your inner child.”

The Dalai Lama’s approach points towards slow growth and maturity. He believes in the tremendous, perhaps even unlimited, power of the mind—but a mind that has been systematically trained, focused, concentrated, a mind tempered by years of experience and sound reasoning. It takes a long time to develop the behavior and habits of mind that contribute to our problems. It takes an equally long time to establish the new happiness that bring happiness. There is no getting around these essential ingredients: determination, effort, and time. These are the real secrets to happiness.

This chapter concludes, “The very fact that we can change our emotions and counteract negative thoughts by applying alternative ways of thinking lends support to the Dalai Lama’s position that we can overcome our negative mental states through the application of the ‘antidotes,” or the corresponding positive mental states. And when this fact is combined with recent scientific evidence that we can change the structure and function of the brain by cultivating new thoughts, then the idea that we can achieve happiness through training of the mind seems a very real possibility.”

The Practice of Tong-Len

December 10, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in the chapter The Value and Benefits of Compassion in the book The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama instructs:
“This afternoon, let us meditate on the practice of Tong-Len, ‘Giving and Receiving.’ This practice is meant to help train the mind, to strengthen the natural power and force of compassion. This is achieved because Tong-Len meditation helps us counteract our selfishness. It increases the power of strength for our mind by enhancing our courage to open ourselves to others’ suffering.

“To begin this exercise, first visualize on one side of your group of people who are in desperate need to help, those who are in an unfortunate state of suffering, those living under conditions of poverty, hardship, and pain. Visualize this group of people on one side of you clearly in your mind. Then on the other side, visualize yourself as the embodiment of a self-centered person, with a customary selfish attitude, indifferent to the well-being and needs of others. And then in between this suffering group of people and this selfish representation of you see yourself in the middle, as a neutral observer.

“Next, notice which side you are naturally inclined towards. Are you more inclined towards that single individual , the embodiment of selfishness? Or do your natural feelings of empathy reach out to the group of weaker people who are in need? If you look objectively, you can see that the well-being of a group or large number of individuals is more important than that of one single individual.

“After that, focus your attention on the needy and desperate people. Direct all your positive energy to them. Mentally give them your successes, your resources, your collection of virtues. And, after you have done that, visualize taking upon yourself their suffering, their problems, and all their negativities.”

“For example, you can visualize an innocent starving child from Somalia and feel how you would respond naturally towards that sight. In this instance, when you experience a deep feeling of empathy towards the suffering of that individual, it isn’t based on consideration like ‘He’s my relative’ or ‘She’s my friend.’ You don’t even know that person. But the fact that the other person is a human being and you, yourself, are a human being allows your natural capacity for empathy to emerge and enable you to reach out. So you can visualize something like that and think, ‘This child has no capacity of his or her own to be able to relieve himself or herself from his or her present state of difficulty or hardship.’ Then, mentally take upon yourself all the suffering of poverty, starvation, and feeling of deprivation, and mentally give your facilities, wealth, and success to this child. So, through practicing this kind of ‘giving-and-receiving’ visualization, you can train your mind.

“When engaging in this practice it is sometimes helpful to begin by first imagining your own future suffering and, with an attitude of compassion, take your own future suffering upon yourself right now, with the sincere wish of freeing yourself from all future suffering. After you gain some practice in generating a compassionate state of mind towards yourself, you can then expand the process to include taking on the suffering of others.

“When you do the visualization of taking upon yourself, it is useful to visualize these sufferings, problems, and difficulties in the form of poisonous substances, dangerous weapons, or terrifying animals—things the very sight of which normally makes you shudder. So, visualize the suffering in these forms, and then absorb them directly into your heart.

“The purpose of visualizing these negative and frightening forms of being dissolved into our hearts is to destroy our habitual selfish attitudes that reside there. However, for those individuals who may have problems with self-image, self-hatred, anger towards themselves or lack of self-esteem, then it is important to judge for themselves whether this particular visualization is appropriate or not. It may not be.

This Tong-Len practice can become quite powerful if you combine the ‘giving and receiving’ with the breath; that is imagine ‘receiving’ when inhaling and ‘giving’ when exhaling. When you do this visualization effectively, it will make you feel some slight discomfort. That is an indication that it is hitting its target—the self-centered, egocentric attitude that we normally have. Now let us meditate.

Dealing with Physical Pain

December 9, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in the chapter The Value and Benefits of Compassion in the book The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama.

In his book, Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants, Dr. Brand explores the purpose and value of physical pain. Dr. Brand, is a world-renowned hand surgeon and leprosy specialist, spent his early years in India where, as the son of missionaries, he was surrounded by people living under conditions of extreme hardship and suffering. Noticing the physical pain seemed to be expected and tolerated much more than in the West, Dr. Brand became interested in the pain system in the human body. Eventually, he began working with leprosy patients in India and made a remarkable discovery. He found that the ravages of leprosy and the horrible disfigurements were not due to the disease organism directly causing the rotting of the flesh, but rather it was because the disease caused loss of pain sensation in the limbs. Without the protection of pain, the leprosy patients lacked the system to warn them of tissue damage. Thus, Dr. Brand observed patients walking or running on limbs with broken skin or even exposed bones; this caused continuous deterioration. Without pain, sometimes they would even stick their hands in a fire to retrieve something. He noticed an utter nonchalance toward self-destruction. In his book, Dr. Brand recounted story after story of the devastating effects of living without pain sensation—of the repetitive injuries, of cases of rats gnawing off fingers and toes while the patient sept peacefully.

Dr. Brand gradually came to view pain not as the universal enemy as seen in the West but as a remarkable, elegant, and sophisticated biological system that warns us of damage to our body and thus protects us. But why must the experience of pain be so unpleasant? He concluded that the very unpleasantness of pain, the part that we hate, is what makes it so effective in protecting us and warning us of danger and injury. The unpleasant quality of pain forces the entire human organism to attend to the problem. Although the body has automatic reflexive movements that form an outer layer of protection and move us quickly away from the pain, it is the feeling of unpleasantness that galvanizes and compels the entire organism to attend to the act. It also sears the experience into the memory and serves to protect us in the future.

In the same way that finding meaning in our suffering can help us cope with life’s problems, Dr. Brand feels that an understanding of the purpose of physical pain can lessen our suffering when pain arises. In view of this theory, he offers the concept of “pain insurance.” He feels that we can prepare for pain ahead of time while healthy, by gaining insight into the reason we have it and taking the time to reflect on what life would be like without pain. However, since acute pain can demolish objectivity, we must reflect on these things before pain strikes. But if we can begin to think of pain as a “speech your body is delivering about a subject that is of vital importance to you, in the most effective of getting your attention,” then our attitude about pain will begin to change. And as our attitude about pain changes, our suffering will diminish. As Dr. Brand states, “I am convinced that the attitude we cultivate in advance may well determine how suffering will affect us when it does strike.” He believes that we can even develop gratitude in the face of pain. We may not be grateful for the experience of pain, but we can be grateful for the system of pain perception.

Researchers looking into this issue began by tracing the pathways of how pain is perceived and experienced. Pain begins with a sensory signal an alarm that goes off when nerve endings are stimulated by something that is sensed as dangerous. Millions of signals are sent through the spinal cord to the base of the brain. These signals are then sorted out and a message is sent to higher areas of the brain telling of pain. The brain then sorts through the prescreened messages and decides on a response. It is at this stage that the mind can assign value and meaning to the pain and intensity or modify our perception of pain; we convert pain into suffering in the mind. To lessen the suffering of pain, we need to make a crucial distinction between the pain of pain and the pain we create by our thoughts about the pain. Fear, anger, guilt, loneliness, and helplessness are all mental and emotional responses that can intensify pain. So, in developing an approach to dealing with pain, we can of course work at the lower levels of pain perception, using the tools of modern medicine such as medications and other procedures, but we can all work at the higher levels by modifying our outlook and attitude.

This section concludes as follows: In the same way that physical pain unifies our sense of having a body, we can conceive of the general experience of suffering acting as a unifying force that connects us with others. Perhaps that is the ultimate meaning behind our suffering. It is our suffering that is the most basic element that we share with others the factor that unifies with all living creatures.

Finding Meaning in Pain and Suffering

December 8, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in The Art of Happiness.

Victor Frankl, who was a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned by the Nazis in World War II, once said, “Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see a meaning in it.” Frankl used his brutal and inhumane experience in the concentration camps to gain insight into how people survived atrocities. Closely observing who survived and who didn’t, he determined that survival wasn’t based on youth or physical strength but rather on the strength derived from purpose, and the discovery of meaning in one’s life experience.

So where do we begin our search for meaning in suffering? For many people, the search begins with their religious tradition. Although different religions may have different ways of understanding the meaning and purpose of human suffering, every world religion offers strategies for responding to suffering based on its underlying beliefs. In the Buddhist and Hindu models, for example, suffering is a result of our own negative past actions and is seen as a catalyst of seeking spiritual liberation.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the universe was created by a good and just God, and even though His master plan may be mysterious and indecipherable at times, it allows us to tolerate our suffering more easily, trusting, as the Talmud says, that “Everything God does, He does for the best.” Life may still be painful, but like pain a woman experiences at childbirth, we trust that the pain will be outweighed by the ultimate good it produces. The challenge in these traditions lies in the fact that, unlike in childbirth, the ultimate good is often not revealed to us. Still, those with a strong faith in God are sustained by a belief in God’s ultimate purpose for our suffering, as a Hasidic sage advises, “When a man suffers he ought not to say, ‘That’s bad! That’s bad!’ Nothing God imposes on man is bad. But it is all right to say, “That’s bitter! That’s bitter.’ For among medicines there are some that are made with bitter herbs.” So, from the Judeo-Christian perspective, suffering can serve many purposes: It can test and potentially strengthen our faith, it can bring us closer to God in a very fundamental and intimate way, or it can loosen the bonds to the material world and make us cleave to God as our refuge.

While a person’s religious tradition may offer valuable assistance in finding meaning even those who do not subscribe to a religious world view may upon careful reflection find meaning and value behind their suffering. Despite the universal unpleasantness, there is little doubt that our suffering can test, strengthen, and deepen the experience of life. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.” And while it is natural to recoil from suffering, suffering can also challenge us and at times even bring out the best in us.

Shifting Perspective

December 7, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in The Art of Happiness. The Dalai Lama wrote, “The ability to look at events from different perspectives can be very helpful. Then, practicing this, one can use certain experiences, certain tragedies to develop a calmness of mind. One must realize that every phenomena, every event has different aspects. Everything is of a relative nature.”

Continuing, “It seems that often when problems arise, our outlook becomes narrow. All our attention may be focused on worrying about the problem, and we may have a sense that we’re the only one that is going through such difficulties. This can lead to a kind of self-absorption that can make the problem very intense. When this happens, I think that seeing things from a wider perspective can definitely help—realizing, for instance, that there are many other people who have gone through experiences, and even worse experiences. This practice of shifting perspective can even be helpful in certain illnesses or when in pain. At the time the pain arises it is of course often very difficult at that moment, to do formal meditation practices to calm the mind, But if you can make comparisons,view your situation from a different perspective, somehow something happens. If you compare that event with some other greater event, look at the same problem from a distance then it appears smaller and less overwhelming.”

Continuing, “…a situation that you initially perceive as 100% negative may have some positive aspects to it. But I think that even if you have discovered a positive angle to a bad situation, that alone is not enough. You still need to reinforce the idea. So you may need to remind yourself of that positive angle many times, until gradually your feeling changes. Generally speaking, once you’re already in a difficult situation, it isn’t possible to change your attitude simply by adopting a particular thought once of twice, Rather it’s through a process of learning, training, and getting used to new viewpoints that enables you to deal with the difficulty.” If, however, in spite of your efforts, you do not find any such positive angles or perspectives to a person’s act, the for the time being the best course of action may be to simply try to forget about it.”

On the topic of a new perspective on the enemy, the Dalai Lama wrote, “Let’s begin by examining our characteristic attitude toward our rival. Generally speaking , of course, we do not wish good things for our enemies. But even if your enemy is made unhappy through your actions, what is there for you to be so joyful about? If you think about it carefully, how can there be anything more wretched than that? Carrying around the burden of such feelings of hostility and ill will. And do you really want to be that mean?”

“If we take revenge upon one’s enemy, then it creates a kind of vicious cycle. If you retaliate, the other person is not going to accept that—he or she is going to retaliate against you, and then you will do the same, so it will go on. And especially when this happens at the community level, it can go on from generation to generation. The result is that both sides suffer. Then, the whole purpose of life becomes spoiled. You can see this in the refugee camps, where hatred is cultivated towards another group. This happens from childhood on. It is very sad. So, anger or hatred is like a fisherman’s hook. It’s very important for us to ensure that we are not caught by this hook.”

“Now, some people consider that strong hatred is good for national interest. I think this is very negative. It is very short-sighted. Counteracting this way of thinking is the basis of the spirit of nonviolence and understanding.”

The Dalai Lama provides an alternative way of viewing one’s enemy, a new perspective that could have a revolutionary impact on one’s life. He explained:
“”In Buddhism in general, a lot of attention is paid to our attitudes towards our rivals or enemies. This is because hatred can be the greatest stumbling block to the development of compassion and happiness. It you can learn to develop patience and tolerance towards your enemies, then everything else becomes much easier—your compassion towards all others begins to flow naturally.”

“So, for a spiritual practitioner, one’s enemies play a crucial role. As I see it, compassion is the essence of a spiritual life. And in order for you to become successful in practicing love and compassion, the practice of patience and tolerance is indispensable. There is no fortitude similar to patience, just as there is no affliction worse than hatred. Therefore, one must exert one’s best efforts not to harbor hatred towards the enemy, but rather use the encounter as an opportunity for enhance one’s practice of patience and tolerance.”

“In fact, the enemy is the necessary condition for partaking patience. Without an enemy’s action, there is no possibility for patience or tolerance to arise. Our friends do not ordinarily test us and provide the opportunity to cultivate patience; only our enemies do this. So from this standpoint we can consider our enemy as great teacher, and revered them for giving us this precious opportunity to practice patience.”

Dr. Cutler writes, “The ability to shift perspective, the capacity to view one’s problems “from different angles” is nurtured by a supple quality of mind. The ultimate benefit of a supple mind is that it allows us to embrace all of life—to be fully alive and human. Following a long day of public talks in Tucson one afternoon, the Dalai Lama walked back to his hotel suite. As he slowly walked back to his room, a bank of magenta rain clouds spanned the sky, absorbing the late afternoon light and sending the Calalina Mountains into deep relief, eat entire landscape a base palette of purple hues. The effect was spectacular. The warm air, laden with the fragrance of desert plants, of sage, a dampness, a restless breeze, holding the promise of an unbridled Sonoran storm. The Dalai Lama stopped. For several moments he quietly surveyed the horizon, taking in the entire panorama, finally commenting on the beauty of the setting. He walked on, but after a few steps he paused again, bending down to examine a tiny lavender bud on a small plant. He touched it gently, noting its delicate form, and wondered aloud abut the name of the plant. I was struck by the facility with which his mind functioned. His awareness seemed to move so easily from taking in the complete landscape to focusing on a single bud, a simultaneous appreciation of the totality of the environment as well as the smallest detail. A capacity to encompass all facets and the full spectrum of life.
“Every one of us can develop this same suppleness of mind. It comes about, at least in part, directly through our efforts to stretch our perspective and deliberately try on new viewpoints. The end result is a simultaneous awareness of the big picture as well as our individual circumstances. This dual outlook, a concurrent view of the “Big World” and our own “Little World,” can act as a kind of triage, helping us to separate what is important in life to what isn’t.”

Finding balance is important. The Dalai Lama writes, “A balanced and skillful approach to life, taking to avoid extremes, becomes a very important factor in conducting one’s everyday existence. It is important in all aspects of life. For instance, in planting a sapling of a plant or a tree, at its very early stage you have to be very skillful and gentle. Too much moisture will destroy it, too much sunlight will destroy it. Too little will also destroy it. So what you need is a very balanced environment where the sapling can have a healthy growth. Or for a person’s physical health, too much or too little of any one thing can have destructive effects. For example, too much protein I think is bad, and too little is bad.”

The Dalai Lama writes, “I think in many ways narrow-minded attitudes lead to extreme thinking. And this creates problems. For instance, Tibet was a Buddhist nation for many centuries. Naturally that resulted in Tibetans feeling that Buddhism was the best religion, and a tendency to feel that it would be a good thing if all of humanity became Buddhist. The idea that everyone should be a Buddhist is quite extreme. And that kind of extreme thinking just causes problems. But now that we’ve left Tibet, we’re had a chance to come into contact with other religious traditions and to learn about them. This has resulted in coming closer to reality realizing that among all humanity there are so many different mental dispositions. Even if we tried to make the whole world Buddhist it would be impractical. Through closer contact with other traditions you realize the positive things about them. Now, when confronted with another religion, initially a positive feeling, a comfortable feeling, will arise. We’ll feel if that person finds a different tradition more suitable, more effective, then that’s good! The it’s like going to a restaurant—we can all sit down at one table and order different dishes according one’s own taste. We might eat different dishes, but nobody argues about it!

“So, I think that deliberately broadening our outlook we can overcome the kind of extreme thinking that the leads to such negative consequences.”

Self-Created Suffering

December 5, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in The Art of Happiness. In speaking about how we add to our own suffering, the Dalai Lama explained, “We can see that there are many ways in which we actively contribute to our own experience of mental unrest and suffering. Although, in general, mental and emotional afflictions themselves can come naturally, often it is our own reinforcement of these negative emotions that makes them so much worse. For instance when we have anger or hatred towards a person, there is less likelihood of its developing to a very intense degree if we leave it unattended. However, if we think about the projected injustices done to us, the ways in which we have been unfairly treated, and we keep thinking about them over and over [this is called ruminating] then that feeds the hatred. It makes the hatred very powerful and intense. Of course,the same can apply to when we have an attachment towards a particular person; we can feed that by thinking about how beautiful he or she is, and as we keep thinking about the projected qualities that we see in the person, the attachment becomes more and more intense. But this shows how through consistent familiarity and thinking, we ourselves can make our emotions more intense and powerful.

Continuing, “We also often add to our pain and suffering by being overly sensitive, overreacting to minor things, and sometimes taking things too personally. We tend to take small things too seriously and blow them up out of proportion, while at the same time we often remain indifferent to the really important things, those which have profound effects on our lives, and long-term consequences and implications.”

Continuing further, “So I think that to a large extent, whether you suffer depends on how you respond to a given situation. For example, say that you find out that someone is speaking badly of you behind your back. If you react to this knowledge that someone is speaking badly of you, this negativity, with a feeling of hurt or anger, then you yourself destroy your own peace of mind. Your pain is your own personal creation. On the other hand, if you refrain from reacting in a negative way, let the slander pass by you as if it were a silent wind passing behind your ears, you protect yourself from that feeling of hurt, that feeling of agony. So, although you may not always be able to avoid difficult situations, you can modify the extent to which you suffer by how you choose to respond to the situation.”

In our daily life, problems invariably arise. But problems themselves do not automatically cause suffering. If we can directly address our problem and focus our energies on finding a solution, for instance, the problem can be transformed into a challenge. If we throw into the mix, however, a feeling that our problem is ‘unfair,’ we add an additional ingredient that can become powerful in creating mental unrest and emotional suffering. And we have two problems instead of one, but that feeling of ‘unfairness’ distracts us, consumes us, and robs us of the energy needed to solve the original problems.

When asked how can we deal with feelings of unfairness that so often seems to torture us when problems arise, the Dalai Lama responded, “There may be a variety of ways one might deal with the feeling that one’s suffering is unfair. I’ve already spoken of the importance of accepting suffering as a natural fact of human existence. And I think that in some ways Tibetans might be in a better position to accept the reality of these difficult situations, because they will say, ‘Maybe it is because of my Karma in the past.’ They will attribute it to negative actions committed in either this or a previous life, and so there is a greater degree of acceptance. I have seen some families in our settlements in India, with very difficult situations—living under very poor conditions, and on top of that having children with both eyes blind or sometimes retarded. And somehow these poor ladies still manage to look after them, simply saying, ‘This is due to their Karma; it is their fate.’

The Dalai Lama continues, “In mentioning Karma, here I think that it is important to point out and understand that sometimes due to one’s misunderstanding of the doctrine of Karma, there is a tendency to blame everything on Karma and try to exonerate oneself from the responsibility or from the need to take personal initiative. One could easily say, ‘This is due to my past Karma, my negative past Karma, and what can I do? I am helpless?’ This is a total wrong understanding of Karma, because although one’s experiences are a consequence of one’s past deeds, that does not mean that the individual has no choice or that there is no room for initiative to change, to bring about positive change.”

The Dalai Lama writes, “As products of an imperfect world, all of us are imperfect. Every one of us had done some wrong. There are things we regret—things we have done or things we should have done. Acknowledging our wrongdoings with a genuine sense of remorse can serve to keep us on the right track in life and encourage us to rectify our mistakes when possible and take action to correct things in the future. But if we allow our regret to degenerate into excessive guilt, holding on to the memory of our past transgression with continued self-blame and self-hatred, this serves no purpose other than to be a relentless source of self-punishment and self-induced suffering.”

The acceptance of change can be an important factor in reducing a large measure of our self-created suffering. So often, for instance, we cause our own suffering by refusing to relinquish the past. If we define our self-image in terms of what we used to look like or in terms of what we used to be able to do and can’t do now, it is a pretty safe bet that we won’t grow happier as we grow older. Sometimes, the more we try to hold on, the more grotesque and distorted life become.

While the acceptance of the inevitability of change, as a general principle, can help us cope with many problems, taking a more active role by specifically learning about normal life changes can prevent an even greater amount of the day-to-day anxiety that is the cause of many of our troubles

Facing Suffering

December 4, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in The Art of Happiness. The Dalai Lama detailed his approach to human suffering—an approach that ultimately includes a belief in the possibility of freedom from suffering but starts with accepting suffering as a natural fact of human existence, and courageously facing our problems head-on.

The biggest problems in our lives are the ones that we inevitably have to face, like old age, illness, and death. Trying to avoid our problems or simply not thinking about them may provide temporary relief, but I think that there is a better approach. If you directly confront your suffering, you will be in a better position to appreciate the depth and nature of the problem. If you are in a bubble, as long as you remain ignorant of the status and combat capability of your enemy, you will be totally unprepared and paralyzed by fear. However, if you know the fighting capability of your opponents, what type of weapons they have and so on, then you’re in a much better position when you engage in the war. In the same way, if you confront your problems rather than avoid them, you will be in a better position to deal with them.

When asked, what if you directly confront a problem and find out that there’s no solution, he responded. “But I think it’s still better to face it. For example, you might want to consider things like old age and death as negative, unwanted, and simply try to forget about them. But eventually these things will come anyway. And if you’ve avoided thinking about these things, when the day comes that any of these events occur, it will come as a shock causing an unbearable mental uneasiness. However, if you spend some time thinking about old age, death, and these other unfortunate things, your mind will be much more stable when these things happen as you have already become acquainted with these problems and kinds of suffering and have anticipated they will occur.

The Dalai Lama was presented with the following dilemma. A pregnant woman learns that after an amniocentesis or sonogram, it is discovered that the child will have some extreme mental or physical handicap. Obviously the woman is filled with anxiety because she doesn’t know what to do about it. She can have an abortion to save the baby from a life of suffering, but then she will experience a feeling of great loss and pain and perhaps she will experience other feelings such as guilt. Or, she can choose to let nature take its course and have the baby. But then, she may be faced with a lifetime of hardship for herself and the child.

The Dalai Lama responded with a somewhat wistful tone. Whether one approaches from the Western or Buddhist perspective, these kinds of dilemmas are very difficult, very difficult. Now the example regarding the decision about the fetus with the birth effect—nobody really knows what would be better in the long run. Even if a child is born with a birth defect, may be in the long run it would be better for the mother or the family or the child itself. But there is also the possibility that taking into account the long-term consequences, it is better to abort; maybe that could be more positive in the long run. But then who decides? It’s very difficult. Even from the Buddhist viewpoint, that sort of judgment is beyond our rational ability. He paused and added, I think, though, that their backgrounds and beliefs would play a role in how particular individuals might respond to this kind of difficult situation.

The Dalai Lama mentioned the underlying nature of Samsara, of unenlightened existence. When you experience some physical pain or other problem, of course at that moment there’s a feeling of “Oh! This suffering is so bad!’ There’s a feeling of rejection associated with the suffering, a kind of feeling of “Oh, I shouldn’t be experiencing this.” But at this moment if you can look at the situation from another angle and realized that this very body…” he slapped an arm in demonstration, “is the very basis of suffering,” then this reduces that feeling of rejection—that feeling that somehow you don’t deserve to suffer, that you are a victim. So, once you understand and accept this reality, then you experience suffering as something that is quite natural.

The Dalai Lama continues, “So, for example, when dealing with the suffering theTibetan people have undergone, in one way you could look at the situation and feel overwhelmed, wondering, ‘How in the world has this happened? But from another angle you could reflect on the fact that Tibet is also in the middle of Samsara,” he laughed, “as is this planet and the whole galaxy.” He laughed again.

When asked for suggestions about how to handle a great personal loss, such as the loss of a child?

He answered, “To some degree, that depends on people’s personal beliefs. If people believe in rebirth, then accordingly, I think there is a way to reduce worry. They can take consolation in the fact that their loved one will be reborn.”

“For those people who do not believe in rebirth, then I think there are some simple ways to help deal with the loss. First, they could reflect that if they worried too much, allowing themselves to be too overwhelmed, not only would it be very destructive and harmful to themselves, ruining their health, but it would not have any benefit to the person who has passed away.”

Meditation on Compassion

December 2, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in the chapter The Value and Benefits of Compassion in the book The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama.

“As promised during the course of our conversations, true to his word, the Dalai Lama concluded one public talk in Arizona with a meditation on compassion. It was a simple exercise. Yet in a powerful and elegant way, he seemed to summarize and crystalize his previous discussion on compassion, turning it into a formal five-minute exercise that was direct and to the point.”

“In generating compassion, you start by recognizing that you do not want suffering and that you have a right to happiness. This can be verified or validated by your own experience. You then recognize that other people, just like yourself, also do not want to suffer and that they have a right to have happiness. So this become the basis of your beginning to generate compassion.

“So…let us meditate on compassion today. Begin by visualizing a person who is acutely suffering, someone who is in pain or is in a very unfortunate situation. For the first three minutes of the meditation, reflect that individual’s suffering in a more analytic way—think about their intense suffering and the misfortune of that person’s existence. After thinking about that person’s suffering for a few minutes, next, try to relate that to yourself, thinking, ‘that individual has the same capacity for experiencing pain, joy, happiness, and suffering that I do.’ Then try to allow your natural response to arise—a natural feeling of compassion towards that person. Try to arrive at a conclusion: thinking how strongly you wish for that person to be free from their suffering. Finally, place your mind single-pointedly on that kind of conclusion or resolution, and for the last few minutes of the meditation try to place your mind in a compassionate or loving state.”

With that, the Dalai Lama assumed a cross-legged meditation posture, remaining completely immobile as he practiced the meditation along with the audience. Stark silence. But there was something quite stirring about sitting among the assembly that morning, I imagine even the most-hardened individual could not help being moved when surrounded by fifteen hundred people every one of them holding the thought of compassion in their minds. After a few minutes, the Dalai Lama broke into a low Tibetan chant, his voice deep, melodic, gently breaking and falling in tones that soothed, comforted.

[Note: HM meditates in a reclining position. He knows no Tibetan chants but he does possess a Tibetan gong.]

The Benefits of Compassion

December 1, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in the chapter The Value and Benefits of Compassion in the book The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama.

“In recent years there have been many studies that support the idea that developing compassion and altruism have a positive impact on our physical and emotional health. In one well-known experiment David McClellan of Harvard University, showed a group of students a film of Mother Teresa working among Calcutta’s sick and poor. The students reported that the film stimulated feelings of compassion. Afterward, he analyzed the students’ saliva and found an increase in immunoglobulin-A, an antibody that can help fight respiratory infections. In another study done by James House at the University of Michigan Research Center, investigators found that doing regular volunteer work, interacting with others in a warm and compassionate way, dramatically increased life expectancy, and probably overall vitality as well. Many other researchers in the new field of mind-body medicine have demonstrated similar findings, documenting that positive states of mind can improve our physical health.

In addition to the beneficial effects on one’s physical health, there is evidence that compassion and caring behavior contribute to good emotional health. Studies have shown that reaching out to help others can induce a feeling of happiness, a calmer mind, and less depression. In a thirty-year study of a group of Harvard graduates, researcher George Valiant concluded, in fact, that adopting an altruistic lifestyle is a critical component of good mental health. Another survey by Allan Luks, conducted with several thousand people who were regularly involved in volunteer activities that helped others, revealed that over 90% of these volunteers reported a kind of “high” association with the activity, characterized by a feeling of warmth, and a kind of euphoria. They also had a distinct feeling of calmness and enhanced self-worth following the activity. Not only did these caring behaviors provide interactions that were emotionally nourishing, but it was also found that this “helper’s calm” was linked to a relief from a variety of stress-related physical disorders as well.”

The Real Value of Human Life

November 30, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in the chapter The Value and Benefits of Compassion in the book The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama was asked, ‘Your holiness, you say that warmth and compassion are crucial for one to be happy. But by nature, I’m just not a very warm or affectionate person. To be honest I really don’t feel particularly compassionate or altruistic. I tend to be a rather rational, practical, and perhaps intellectual person, and I just don’t feel those kinds of emotions. Yet, I fell good about my life. I feel happy with my life the way it is. I have a very successful business, friends, and I provide for my wife and children and seem to have a good relationship with them. I just don’t feel than anything is missing. Developing compassion, altruism, warmth, and so on sounds nice, but for me, what’s the point? It just seems so sentimental…”

“First of all,” the Dalai Lama replied, “if a person said that, I would still have doubts whether that person was really happy deep down. I truly believe that compassion provides the basis of human survival, the real value of human life, and without that there is a basic piece missing. A deep sensitivity to others’ feelings is an element of love and compassion, and without that, for example, I think that there would be problems in the man’s ability to relate with his wife. If the person really had that attitude of indifference to other’s sufferings and feelings, then even if he was a billionaire, had a good education, had no problems with his family or children, and was surrounded with friends, other rich business people, politicians, and leaders of nations,I think that in spite of all these things that the effect of all these positive things would just remain on the surface.”

The Dalai Lama added the following points, “Still, even if that was the case, there are several things I could point out. First, I might suggest that he reflect on his own experience, it would help him realize that other people also feel good when they are shown warmth and compassion. Therefore, recognizing this fact might make him more respectful of other people’s emotional sensitivity and make him more inclined to give them compassion and warmth. At the same time he would discover that the more you give other’s warmth, the more you receive. I don’t think it would fake him very long to realize that. And as a result, this becomes the basis of mutual trust and friendship”

The Dalai Lama adds informing people about the scientific evidence that backs up the claims about the physical and emotional benefits of compassionate states of mind. And he adds, “…I think that even aside from these scientific studies, there are other arguments that people could understand and appreciate from their own practical or direct everyday experience. For example, you could point out that lack of compassion leads to a certain ruthlessness. There are many examples indicating that at some level deep down, ruthless people like Stalin and Hitler [here HM would also add Trump]. Such people suffer from a nagging sense of insecurity and fear. Even when sleeping I think that fear remains…All that might be very difficult for some people to understand, but one thing you could say is that these people lack something that you can find in a more compassionate person—a sense of freedom, a sense of abandonment, so when you sleep you can relax and let go. Ruthless people never have that experience. Something is always gripping them; there is some kind of hold on them, and they aren’t going to experience that feeling of letting to that sense of freedom.”

Intimacy

November 29, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in The Art of Happiness. The Dalai Lama writes, “I’ve never felt a lack of people with whom I can share things. I think a lot of this has to do with my nature. It’s easy for me to share things with others; I’m just not good at keeping secrets! Of course, sometimes this can be a negative trait. On a personal level, being open and sharing things can be very useful. Because of this nature I can make friends more easily, and it’s not just a matter of knowing people and having a superficial exchange but of really sharing my deepest problems and suffering. It’s the same thing when I hear good news; I immediately share it with others. So, I feel a sense of intimacy and connection with my friends. Of course, it’s sometimes easier for me to establish a connection with others because they’re often very happy to share their suffering or joy with the Dalai Lama.

In the past, if I felt disappointed or unhappy with the Tibetan government policy or I was concerned with other problems, even the threat of a Chinese invasion, then I would return to my rooms and share this with the person who sweeps the floor. From one point of view it may seem quite silly to some that the Dalai Lama, the head of the Tibetan government, facing some international or national problems, would share them with a sweeper. He laughed once again. But personally I feel it is very helpful, because then the other person participates and we can face the problem or suffering together.

Dr. Cutler writes, “It is clear that intimacy promotes physical and psychological well-being. In looking at the health benefits of intimate relationships, medical researchers have found that people who have close friendships, people whom they can turn to for affirmation, empathy, and affection, are more likely to survive health challenges such as heart attacks and major surgery, and are less likely to develop diseases such as cancer or respiratory infections. For example, one study of over a thousand patients at Duke University Medical Center found that those who lacked a spouse or close confidant were three time more likely to die within five years of the diagnosis of heart disease as those who were married or who had a close friend. Another study of thousands of residents in Alameda County, California, over a nine-year period showed that those with more social support and intimate relationships had lower death rates overall and lower rates of cancer. And a study at the University of Nebraska School of Medicine of several hundred elderly people found that those with an intimate relationship had better immune function and lower cholesterol levels. Over the course of several years there have been at least a half-dozen massive investigations conducted by a number of different researchers looking at the relationship between intimacy and health. After interviewing thousands of people, the various investigators all seem to have reached the same conclusion: close relationships do, in fact, promote health.

We have within our power the means to promote health; we need only courageously expand our concept of intimacy to include all the other people who surround us on a daily basis. By broadening our definitions of intimacy, we open ourselves to discovering many new and equally satisfying ways of connecting with others.

Deepening Our Connection to Others

November 28, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in The Art of Happiness. In answer to a question the Dalai Lama said, “Dealing with others is a very complex issue. There is no way that you can come up with one formula that could solve all problems. It’s a bit like cooking. If you are cooking a very delicious mean, a special meal, then there are various stages in the cooking. You may have to first boil the vegetables separately and then you have to fry them and then you combine them in a special way, mixing spices and so on. And finally, the end result would be this delicious product. Similarly here, in order to be skilled in dealing with others, you need many factors. You can’t just say, ‘This is the method’ or ‘This is the technique.’

Later, he continues, “I think that empathy is important not only as a means of enhancing compassion, but I think that generally speaking, when dealing with others on any level, if you’re having some difficulties, it’s extremely helpful to be able to try to put yourself in the other person’s place and see how you would react to the situation. Even if you have no common experience with the other person or have a very different lifestyle, you can try to do this through imagination. You may need to be slightly creative. This technique involves the capacity to temporarily suspend insisting on your own viewpoint but rather to look from the other person’s perspective, to imagine what would be the situation if you were in his shoes, how you would deal with this. This helps you develop an awareness and respect for another’s feelings, which is an important factor in reducing conflicts and problems with other people.”

Still later, “Whenever I meet people I always approach them from the standpoint of the most basic things we have in common. We each have a physical structure, a mind, emotions. We are all born in the same way, and we all die. All of us want happiness and do not want to suffer. Looking at others from this standpoint rather than emphasizing secondary differences such as the fact that I am Tibetan, or a different color, religions, or cultural background, allows me to have a feeling that I’m meeting someone just the same as me. I thin that relating to others on that level makes it much easier to exchange and communicate with one another.”

The concluding paragraph in this chapter follows: “…we explored the role of closeness and intimacy as an important component of human happiness. There’s no doubt about this. But if one is looking for lasting satisfaction in a relationship, the foundation of the relationship must be solid. It is for this reason that the Dalai Lama encourages us to examine the underlying basis of a relationship, should we find ourselves in a relation ship that is going sour. Sexual attraction or even the intense feeling of falling in love, may play a role in forming an initial bond between two people, to draw them together, but like a good epoxy glue, the initial bonding agent needs to be mixed with other ingredients before it will harden into a lasting bond. In identifying these other ingredients, we turn once again to the Dalai Lama’s approach to building a strong relationship basing our relationship on the qualities of affection, compassion, and mutual respect as human beings. Basing a relationship on these qualities enables us to achieve a deep and meaningful bond not only with our lover or spouse but also with friends, acquaintances, or strangers—virtually any human being. It opens up unlimited possibilities and opportunities for connection.

This post ends with a quote from Mark Twain: ‘no man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a Quarter of a century…”

Fortunately HM and his spouse have successfully passed this mark.

Dependence on Others Versus Self-Reliance

November 27, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in The Art of Happiness. There is the Buddhist doctrine of the Field of Merit. Merit is described as positive imprints on one’s mind or “mental continuum.’ The Field of Merit is a source of foundation from which a person can accumulate Merit. There are two Fields of Merit, the field of the Buddhas, which will not be addressed in this post, and the field of other sentient beings. This method involves practicing actions like kindness, generosity, tolerance, and so on and conscious restraint from negative actions like killing, stealing, and lying. This method requires interaction with other people. On that basis, the Dalai Lama pointed out, other people can be of great help to us in accumulating Merit.

The Dalai Lama said, “the other day I spoke about the factors necessary to enjoy a happy and joyful life. Factors such as good health, material goods, friends, and so on. If you closely investigate, you’ll find that all of these depend on other people. To maintain good health, you rely on medicines made by others and health care provided by others. If you examine all of the material facilities you use for the enjoyment of life, you’ll find that there are hardly any of these material objects that have had no connection to other people. If you think carefully, you’ll see that all of these goods come into being as a result of the efforts of many people, either directly or indirectly. Many people are involved in making those things possible. Needless to say, when we’re talking about good friends and company as being another necessary factor for a happy life, we are talking about interaction with other sentient beings, other human beings.”

Continuing, “So you can see that all of these factors inextricably line up with other people’s efforts and cooperation. Others are indispensable. So, despite the fact that the process of relating to others might involve hardships, quarrels, cursing, we have to try to maintain an attitude of friendship and warmth in order to lead a way of life in which there is enough interaction with other people to enjoy a happy life.”

Listening to the Dalai Lama. Cutler thought, “It occurred to me that virtually every aspect of my life came about as the result of others’s efforts. My precious self-reliance was a complete illusion, a fantasy. As this realization dawned on me, I was overcome with a profound sense of interdependence of all beings. I felt a softening. Something. I don’t know. It made me want to cry.”

Happy Thanksgiving 2020

November 26, 2020

HM interrupts the series of posts on The Art of Happiness to bring you this holiday message. You might be wondering what there is to be thankful for in this pandemic. What we should be most thankful for is the election of a new President to replace Trump. Trump refused to take national responsibility to deal with the pandemic. Worse yet, he spread and continues to spread disinformation about the pandemic. The United States has already suffered almost a quarter of a million deaths, many of which could have be avoided given an effective response to the pandemic. Just by not spreading disinformation, many lives could have been spared. It is ironic that Trump is taking credit for the development of a vaccine. Trump did not develop the vaccine. It was developed through science, and science is a field in which neither Trump nor his followers believe.

Nevertheless, we have much to be thankful for. We have our minds along with their biological substrates, our brains. By continuing to pursue growth mindsets, we can continue to learn, with the additional benefit of decreasing the likelihood of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

This has been an extremely disturbing time for many Americans. Trump has threatened and continues to threaten American democracy. However, by following the philosophy and some of the practices presented in the posts on The Art of Happiness we can not just maintain hold on our sanity, but also maintain optimism and happiness even in extremely adverse environments.

Loneliness and Connection

November 25, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in The Art of Happiness. When asked if he ever gets lonely, the Dalai Lama answered, “No.” When asked what do you attribute that to, he thought for a moment and then said, “I think one factor is that I look at any human being from a more positive angle; I try to look for their positive aspects. This attitude immediately creates a feeling of affinity; a kind of connectedness.”

He continues, “And it may partly be because on my part, there is less apprehension, less fear, that if I act in a certain way, maybe the person will lose respect or think that I am strange. So because that kind of fear and apprehension is normally absent, there is a kind of openness. I think it’s the main factor.”

And continuing, “My basic belief is that you first need to realize the usefulness of compassion. That is the key factor. Once you accept the fact that compassion is not something childish or sentimental, once you realize that compassion is something really worthwhile, realize its deeper value, then you immediately develop an attraction towards it, a willingness to cultivate it. And once you encourage the thought of compassion in your mind, once that thought becomes active, then your attitude towards others changes automatically. If you approach others with the thought of compassion, that will automatically reduce fear and allow an openness with other people. It creates a positive, friendly atmosphere. With that attitude, you can approach relationships in which, you, yourself, initially create the possibility of receiving affection or a positive response from the other person. And with that attitude, even if the other person is unfriendly or doesn’t respond to you in a positive way, then at least you’ve approached the person with a feeling of openness that gives you a certain flexibility and the freedom to change your approach as needed. That kind of openness at least allows the possibility of having a meaningful conversation with them. But without the attitude of compassion, if you are feeling closed, irritated, or indifferent, then you can even be approached by your best friend and you just feel uncomfortable.

Still continuing, “I think that in many cases people tend to expect the other person to respond to them in a positive way first, rather than taking the initiative themselves to create the possibility. I feel that’s wrong; it leads to problems and can act as a barrier that just serves to promote a feeling of isolation from others. So, if you want to overcome that feeling of isolation and loneliness, I think that your underlying attitude makes a tremendous difference. And approaching ones with the thought of compassion in your mind is the best way to do this.”

Dr. Cutler’s response is, The Dalai Lama’s strategy seemed to bypass working directly on social skills or external behaviors, in favor of an approach that cuts directly to the heart.

Reclaiming Our Innate State of Happiness

November 24, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in The Art of Happiness. The Buddhist doctrine of ‘Buddha Nature’ provides some grounds for the belief that the fundamental nature of all sentient beings is essentially gentle and not aggressive. But one can adopt this view without having to resort to the Buddhist doctrine of ‘Buddha Nature.’ There are also other grounds on which HM bases this belief. HM thinks the subject of human affection or compassion isn’t just a religious matter; It’s an indispensable factor in one’s day-to-day life.’

If we look at the very pattern of our existence from an early age until our death, we can see the way in which we are fundamentally nurtured by other’s affection. It begins at birth. Our very first act after birth is to suck our mother’s or someone else’s milk. That is an act of affection, of compassion. Without this act, we cannot survive. That’s clear. And that action cannot be fulfilled unless there is a mutual feeling of affection. From the child’s side, if there is no feeling of affection, no bond, towards the person who is giving the milk, then the child may not suck the milk. And without affection on the part of the mother or someone else, the milk may not come freely. So that’s the way of life. That’s reality.

Our physical structure seems to be more suited to feelings of love and compassion. We can see how a calm, affectionate, wholesome state of mind has beneficial effects on our health and physical well-being. Conversely, feelings of frustration, fear, agitation, and anger can be destructive to our health.

We can also see that our emotional health is enhanced by feelings of affection. To understand this, we need only to reflect on how we feel when others show us warmth and affection. Or, observe how our own affectionate feelings or attitudes automatically and naturally affect us from within, how they make us feel. These gentler emotions and the positive behaviors that go with them lead to a happier family and community life.

So, I think that we can infer that our fundamental human nature is one of gentleness. And if this is the case, then it makes all the more sense to try to live in a way that is more in accordance with this basic nature of our being.

The Dalai Lama concludes, “it is still my firm conviction that human nature is essentially compassionate, gentle. That is the predominant feature of human nature.

The purpose of our life is happiness. This simple statement can be used as a powerful tool in helping us navigate through life’s daily problems. From that perspective, our task becomes one of discarding the things that lead to suffering and accumulating the things that lead to happiness. The method, the daily practice, involves gradually increasing our awareness and understanding of what truly leads leads to happiness and what doesn’t. The turning-toward happiness as a valid goal and the conscious decision to seek happiness in a systematic manner can profoundly change the rest of our lives.

This chapter concludes, So let us reflect on what is truly of value in life, what gives meaning to our lives, and set our priorities on the basis of that. The purpose of our life needs to be positive. We weren’t born with the purpose of causing trouble, harming others. For our life to be of value, I think we must develop basic good human qualities—warmth, kindness, compassion. Then our life becomes meaningful and more peaceful—happier.

Ethical Discipline

November 23, 2020

The Dalai Lama pointed out, “I think that ethical behavior is another feature of the kind of inner discipline that leads to a happier existence. One could call this ethical discipline. Great spiritual teachers like the Buddha advise us to perform wholesome actions and avoid indulging in unwholesome actions. Whether our action is wholesome or unwholesome depends on whether that action or deed raise from a disciplined or undisciplined state of mind. It is felt that a disciplined mind leads to happiness and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering, and in fact it is said that bringing about discipline within one’s mind is the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.

The Dalai Lama continues, “When I speak of discipline, I’m referring to self-discipline, not discipline that’s externally imposed on you by someone else. Also, I’m referring to discipline that’s applied in order to overcome your negative qualities. A criminal gang may need discipline to perform a successful robbery, but that discipline is useless.”

Wholesome deeds may not come naturally, but we have to consciously train towards it. This is so, particularly in modern society, because there is a tendency to accept that the question of wholesome deeds and unwholesome deeds—what to do and what is not to be done—is something that is considered the responsibility of religion to prescribe what behaviors are wholesome and what are not. However, in today’s society, religion has lost its prestige and influence to some degree. At the same time, no alternative, such as secular ethics, has come up to replace it. So there seems to be less attention paid to the need to lead a wholesome way of life. It is because of this that I think we need to make some special effort and consciously work towards gaining that kind of knowledge. For example, although I personally believe that our human nature is fundamentally gentle and compassionate, I feel that this is not enough that this is our underlying nature; we must develop an appreciation and awareness of that fact. And changing how we perceive ourselves, through learning and understanding, can have a very real impact on how we interact with others and how we conduct our daily lives.

The Dalai Lama concludes, “One problem with our current society is that we have an attitude towards education as if it is there simply to make you more clever, more ingenious. Sometimes it even seems as if those who are not highly educated, those who are less sophisticated in terms of their educational training, are more innocent and more honest. Even though our society does not emphasize this the most important use of knowledge and education is to help us understand the importance of engaging in more wholesome actions and bringing about discipline within our minds. The proper utilization of our intelligence and knowledge is to effect changes from within to develop a good heart.

Mental Discipline

November 22, 2020

The Dalai Lama said,”Achieving genuine happiness may require bringing about a transformation in you outlook, your way of thinking, and this is not a simple matter. It requires the application of so many different factors from different directions. “As time goes on, you can make positive changes. Everyday as soon as you get up, you can develop a sincere positive motivation, thinking, I will utilize this day in a more positive way. I should not waste this very day.’ And then, at night before bed, check what you’ve done, asking yourself, ‘Did I utilize this day as I planned?’ If it went accordingly, then you should rejoice. If it went wrong, then regret what you did and critique the day. So, through methods such as this, you can gradually strengthen the positive aspects of the mind.

Dr. Cutler writes,“No matter what activity or practice we are pursuing, there isn’t anything that isn’t made easier through constant familiarity and training. Through training, we can change, we can transform ourselves. Within Buddhist practice there are various methods of trying to sustain a calm mind when some disturbing event happens. Through repeated practice of these methods we can get to the point where some disturbance may occur but the negative effects on our mind remain on the surface, like the waves that may rifle on the surface of an ocean but don’t have much effect deep down. And, although my own experience may be very little, I have found this to be true in my own small practice. So, if I receive some tragic news, at that moment I may experience some disturbance within my mind, but it goes very quickly. Or, I may become irritated and develop some anger, but again, it dissipates very quickly. There is no effect on the deeper mind. No hatred. This was achieved through gradual practice; it didn’t happen overnight.

The wiring of our brains is not static, not irrevocably fixed. Our brains are also adaptable, Neuroscientists have documented the fact that the brain can design new patterns, new combinations of brain cells and neurotransmitters (chemicals that transmit messages between nerve cells) in response to new input. In fact, our brains are malleable, ever changing, reconfiguring their wiring according to new thoughts and experiences. As a result of learning the function of individual neurons themselves change, allowing electrical signals to travel along them more readily. Scientists call the brain’s inherent capacity to change “plasticity.”

By mobilizing our thoughts and practicing new ways of thinking, we can reshape our nerve cells and change the way our brains work. It is also the basis for the ideas that inner transformation begins with learning (new input) and involves the discipline of gradually replacing our “negative conditioning” (corresponding with our present characteristic nerve cell activation patterns) with “positive conditions” (forming new neural circuits). Thus, the idea of training the mind for happiness becomes a very real possibility.

The Path to Happiness

November 21, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in the chapter Training the Mind for Happiness in The Art of Happiness.

Once our basic physical needs for food, clothing, and shelter are met we don’t need more money, we don’t need greater success or fame, we don’t need the perfect body or even the perfect mate—right now, at this very moment, we have a mind, which is all the basic equipment we need to achieve complete happiness.

In presenting his approach to working with the mind, the Dalai Lama began, “When we refer to ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness,’ there are many different varieties. Just like external conditions or objects, some things are very useful, some things are very harmful, and some are neutral. So when dealing with external matter, usually we first try to identify which of these different substances or chemicals are helpful, so we can take care to cultivate, increase, and use them. And those substances which are harmful, we get rid of. So similarly, when we talk about mind, there are thousands of different thoughts or different minds. Among them, some are very helpful; those we should take and nourish. Some are negative, very harmful; those we should try to reduce.”

“So, the first step in seeking happiness is learning. We first have to learn how negative emotions are not only very bad and harmful to one personally but harmful to society and the future of the whole world as well. That kind of realization enhances our determination to face and overcome them. And then there is the realization of the beneficial aspect of the positive emotions and behaviors. Once we realize that, we become determined to cherish, develop and increase those positive emotions no matter how difficult it is. There is a kind of spontaneous willingness from within. So through this process of learning, of analyzing, which thoughts and emotions are beneficial and which are harmful, we gradually develop a firm determination to change, feeling, ‘Now the secret to my own happiness, my own good future, is within my own hands. I must not miss that opportunity.!”

“In Buddhism, the principle of causality is accepted as a natural law. In dealing with reality, you have to take that law into account. So, for instance, in the case of everyday experiences, if there are certain types of events that you do not desire, then the best method of ensuring that that event does not take place is to make sure the causal conditions that normally give rise to that event no longer arise. Similarly, if you want a particular event or experience to occur, then the logical thing to do is to seek and accumulate the causes and conditions that give rise to it.

“This is also the case with mental states and experiences. If you desire happiness, you should seek the cases that give rise to it, and if you don’t desire suffering, then what you should do is to ensure that the causes and conditions that would give rise to it no longer arise. Similarly, if you want a particular event or experience to occur, then the logical thing to do is to seek and accumulate the causes and conditions that give rise to it.

“Hatred, jealousy anger, and so on are harmful. We consider them negative states of mind because they destroy our mental happiness; once you harbor feelings of hatred or ill feeling towards someone, once you yourself are filled by hatred or negative emotions, then other people appear to you as hostile. So as a result there is more fear, greater inhibition and hesitations, and a sense of insecurity. Those things develop, and also loneliness in the midst of a world perceived as hostile. All these negative feelings develop because of hatred. On the other hand, mental states such as kindness and compassion are definitely very positive.

“I would regard a compassionate, warm, kindhearted person as healthy. If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door. Through that, you can communicate much more easily with other people. And that feeling of warmth creates a kind of openness.

The Dalai Lama concludes, “I think that cultivating positive mental states like kindness and compassion definitely lead to better psychological health and happiness.

Happiness Versus Pleasure

November 20, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of one of the sections in The Art of Happiness. We know pleasure when we feel it. We know it in the touch or smile of a loved one, in the luxury of a hot bath on a cold rainy afternoon, in the beauty of a sunset. But many of us also know pleasure in the frenetic rhapsody of a cocaine rush, the ecstasy of a heroin high, the revelry of an alcohol buzz, the bliss of unrestrained sexual excess, the exhilaration of a winning streak in Las Vegas. These are also very real pleasures—pleasures that many in our society must come to terms with.

Although there are no easy solutions to avoiding these destructive pleasures, fortunately we have a place to begin: the simple reminder that what we are seeking in life is happiness. As the Dalai Lama points out, that is an unmistakable fact. If we approach our choices in life in keeping in mind that it is easier to give up the things that are ultimately harmful to us, even if those things things bring us momentary pleasure. The reason why it is usually so difficult to “Just say no!” is found in the word ‘no’; that approach is associated with a sense of rejecting something, of giving something up, or denying ourselves.

But if there is a better approach: framing any decision we face by asking ourselves, “Will it bring me happiness?” That simple question can be a powerful tool in helping us skillfully conduct all areas of our lives, not just in the decision whether to indulge in drugs, or in that piece of banana cream pie. It puts a new slant on things. Approaching our day decisions and choices with this question in mind shifts the focus from what we are denying ourselves to what we are seeking—ultimate happiness. A kind of happiness, as defined by the Dalai Lama, that is stable and persistent. A state of happiness that remains, despite life’s ups and downs and normal fluctuations of mood, as part of the very matrix of our being. With this perspective, it’s easer to make the “right decision” because we are acting to give ourselves something, not denying or withholding from ourselves—an attitude of moving toward rather than moving away, an attitude of embracing life rather than rejecting it. This underlying sense of moving toward happiness can have a profound effect; it makes us more receptive, more open, to the joy of living.

Inner Contentment and Inner Worth

November 19, 2020

The Dalai Lama says that there are two kinds of desire. Certain desires are positive. A desire for happiness is absolutely right. The desire for peace. The desire for a more harmonious world, a friendlier world. Certain desires are useful.

“But at some point, desires can become unreasonable. That usually leads to trouble. For example, sometimes I visit supermarkets. I really love to see supermarkets, because I can see so many beautiful things. So, when I look at all these different articles, I develop a feeling of desire, and my initial impulse, might be, ‘Oh, I want this; I want that.’ Then, the second thought that arises, I ask myself, ‘Oh, do I really need this? The answer is usually no. If you follow after that first desire, that initial impulse, then very soon your pockets will be empty. However, the other level of desire, based on one’s essential needs for food, clothing, and shelter is something more reasonable.

“Sometimes, whether a desire is excessive or negative depends on the circumstances or society in which you live. For example, if you live in a prosperous society where a car is required to help you manage your daily life, then of course there’s nothing wrong in desiring a car. But if you live in a poor village in India where you can mange quite well without a car, but you still desire one, even if you have the money to buy it, it can ultimately bring trouble. It can create uncomfortable feelings among your neighbors and so on. Or, if you’re living in a more prosperous society and have a car but keep wanting more expensive cars, that leads to the same kind of problems.

The Dalai Lama continues, “Self-satisfaction alone cannot determine if a desire or action is positive or negative. A murderer may have a feeling of satisfaction at the time he is committing the murder, but that doesn’t justify the act. All the non virtuous actions—lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and so on—are committed by people who may be feeling a sense of satisfaction at the time. The demarcation between a positive and a negative desire or action is not whether it gives you an immediate feeling of satisfaction but whether it ultimately results in positive or negative consequences. For example, in the case of wanting more expensive possessions, if that is based on a mental attitude that just wants more and more, then eventually you’ll reach a limit of what you can get; you’ll come up against reality. And when you reach that limit, then you’ll lose all hope, sink down into depression, and so on. That’s one danger inherent in that type of desire.

“So, I think that this kind of excessive desire leads to greed—an exaggerated form of desire based on over expectation. And when you reflect upon the excesses of greed, you’ll find that it leads an individual to a feeling of frustration, disappointment, a lot of confusion, and a lot of problems. When it comes to dealing with greed, one thing that is quite characteristic is that although it arrives by the desire to obtain something, it is not satisfied by obtaining it. Therefore, it becomes one of limitless, sort of bottomless desire, and that leads to trouble. One interesting thing about greed is that although the underlying motive is to seek satisfaction, the irony is that even after obtaining the object of your desire, you are still not satisfied. The true antidote for greed is contentment. If you have a strong sense of contentment, it doesn’t matter whether you obtain the object or not; either way, you are still content.”

The Sources of Happiness

November 18, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in The Art of Happiness. It is important to understand the essential point that happiness is determined more by one’s state of mind than by external events. Success may result in a temporary feeling of elation, or tragedy may send us into a period of depression, but sooner or later our overall level of happiness tends to migrate back to a certain baseline. This process is called adaptation, and we can see how this principle operates in our everyday life; a pay raise, a new car, or recognition from our peers may lift our mood for a while, but we soon return to our customary level of happiness. Similarly, an argument with a friend, a car in the repair shop, or a minor injury may put us in a foul mood, but within a matter of days our spirits rebound. Whether we were feeling happy or unhappy at any given moment often has very little to do with our absolute condition. Rather, it is a function of how we perceive our situation, how satisfied we are with what we have.

Our feelings of contentment are strongly influenced by our tendency to compare. When we compare our current situation to our past and find that we’re better off, we feel happy. For instance, this happens when our income suddenly jumps from $20,000 to $30,000 a year, but it’s not the absolute amount of income that makes us happy. We get used to our new income and discover that we won’t be happy again unless we’re making $40,000 a year. We also look around and compare ourselves to others. No matter how much we make, we tend to be dissatisfied with our income if our neighbor is making more. Professional athletes complain bitterly about salaries of $1 million, $2 million, or $3 million, citing the higher salary of a teammate as justification for their unhappiness. Here is H. L. Mencken’s definition of a wealthy man: one whose income is $100 a year higher than his wife’s sister’s husband.

The Dalai Lama explains, “Although it is possible to achieve happiness, happiness is not a simple thing. There are many levels. In Buddhism, for instance, there is a reference to the four factors of fulfillment or happiness: wealth, worldly satisfaction spirituality, and enlightenment. Together, they represent the totality of individual’s quest for happiness.” Good health, wealth, and friendship or companions are also contributing factors.

“Now, all of these factors are, in fact, sources of happiness. But in order for an individual to be able to fully utilize them towards the goal of enjoying a happy and fulfilled life, your state of mind is key. It’s crucial.

“If we utilized our favorable circumstances, such as good health or wealth, in positive ways, in helping others, they can be contributory factors in achieving a happier life. And, of course we enjoy these things—our material facilities, success, and so on. But without the right mental attitude, without attention to the mental factor, these things have very little impact on our long term feelings of happiness. For example, if you harbor hateful thoughts or intense anger somewhere deep down within yourself, then it ruins your health; thus it destroys one of the factors. Also, if you are mentally unhappy or frustrated, then physical comfort is not of much help. On the other hand, if you can maintain a calm, peaceful state of mind, then you can be a very happy person even if you have poor health. Or, even if you have wonderful possessions, when you are in a tense moment of anger or hatred, you feel like throwing them, breaking them. At that moment your possessions mean nothing. Today there are societies that are very developed materially, yet among them there are many people who are not very happy. Just underneath the beautiful surface of affluence there is a kind of mental unrest, leading to frustration, unnecessary quarrel, reliance on drugs or alcohol, and in the worst case, suicide. When you are in an intense state of anger or hatred, even a very close friend appears to you as somehow sort of frosty, or cold, distant, and quite annoying. All of this indicates the tremendous influence that the mental state, the mind factor, has on our experience of daily life.

The Right to Happiness

November 17, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in The Art of Happiness. Speaking to a large audience in Arizona the Dalai Lama said, “I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion our life is towards happiness…”

Dr. Cutler asked the Dalai Lama, “Are you happy?’

The Dalai Lama answered, “Yes…definitely.”

Dr. Cutler then asked, “But is happiness a reasonable goal for most of us? Is it really possible?”

The Dalai Lama answered, “Yes. I believe that happiness can be achieved through training the mind.”

He then elaborated, “When I say ‘training the mind,’ I’m not referring to ‘mind’ merely as one’s cognitive ability or intellect. Rather, I’m using the term in the sense of the Tibetan word Sem, which has a much broader meaning, closer to ‘psyche’ or spirit’, it induced intellect and feeling, heart and mind. By bringing about a certain inner discipline, we can undergo a transformation of our attitude, our entire outlook and approach to living.

Continuing, “When we speak of this inner discipline, it can of course involve many things, many methods. But generally speaking, one begins by identifying those factors that lead to happiness and those factors that lead to suffering. Having done this, one then sets about gradually eliminating those factors which lead to suffering and cultivating those which lead to happiness. That is the way.”

The purpose of our existence is to seek happiness. It seems like common sense, and Western thinkers from Aristotle to William James have agreed with this idea. But isn’t a life based on seeking personal happiness by nature self-centered, even self-indulgent? Not necessarily. Survey after survey has shown that it is unhappy people who tend to be the most self-focused and are often socially withdrawn, brooding, and even antagonistic. In contrast, happy people are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, and creative and are able to tolerate life’s daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people. Most important, they are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people.

Dr. Cutler suggests that we conduct our own experiment in the laboratory of our own daily lives. Suppose we’re stuck in traffic. After twenty minutes it finally begins moving again, at around parade speed. We see someone in another car signaling that she wants to pull into lane ahead of us. If we’re in a good mood, we are more likely to slow down and wave them on ahead of us. If we’re feeling miserable our response may be simply to speed up and close the gap. “Well, I’ve been stuck here waiting all this time; why shouldn’t they wait? Had we waved them ahead and said, perhaps even to ourselves, “may you be joyful,” “may you be peaceful” it is likely that our mood would have improved.

We begin with the basic premise that the purpose of our life is to seek happiness. It is a vision of happiness as a real objective, one that we take positive steps toward achieving. And as we begin to identify the factors that lead to a happier life, we will learn how to search for happiness that offers benefits not only for the individual but for the individual’s family and for society at large as well.