Archive for October, 2011

Self Hypnotism

October 30, 2011

It has been said that all hypnotism is actually self hypnotism. The New Scientist published an interesting article1 on hypnotism. It describe the treatment program that Peter Whorwell has developed for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a serious disorder that results in some sufferers contemplating suicide. Whorwell presents a tutorial to his patients on how the gut functions. Then he has his patients effectively hypnotize themselves to use visual and tactile sensations of warmth and to imagine the bowel working normally. The United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has recommended hypnosis as an effective treatment for IBS. Whorwell has shown that under hypnosis some IBS patients can reduce the contractions of their bowel, something that can not normally be done under conscious control2. Their bowel linings become less sensitive to pain.

The question is why this works. Irving Kirsch of the University of Kull thinks that hypnosis taps into physiological pathways that are similar to those involved in the placebo effect (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Placebo and Nocebo Effects”). The medical conditions that benefit from the placebo effect and hypnotism are similar. They both involve suggestion and expectation. The disappointing part is that there are individual differences in how well people respond to hypnosis.

For those who do respond well to hypnosis, the effects can be quite impressive. A common test used in studies of pain perception is called the cold presser test. The research participant is asked to keep her hand in ice water for as long as she can stand it. This does become quite painful. The research participant gives ratings of the pain as it increases as the time in the ice water increases. Eventually, the pain becomes unbearable and the participant removes the hand. People who are effectively hypnotized can keep their hand in the bucket for a long period of time. They are told when to remove their hand to prevent organic damage. They also give accurate ratings of the pain, so although they remain aware of the painful stimulus, the pain remains bearable.

1Marchant, J. (2011). Hypnotise Yourself. New Scientist, 27 August, 35.

2Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 64, p. 621.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Benefits of Meditation

October 26, 2011

The benefits of meditation are many.1 There is evidence that meditation boosts the immune system in vaccine recipients and people with cancer. Meditation protects against relapses in major depression and soothes skin conditions. It has even been shown to slow the progression of HIV.

There is even some evidence that meditation might slow the aging process. A proposed theoretical process by which this might happen is interesting. It is believed that telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes play a role in aging. These telomeres get shorter every time a cell divides. It is thought that this process fosters aging. Research conducted by Clifford Saron of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, found that the levels of an enzyme that builds up telomeres were higher in people who attended a three-month meditation retreat than in a comparable control group who did not meditate.2 The increase in this enzyme and the build up of telomeres, could play a role in slowing aging.

It is also likely that meditation works by influencing stress response pathways. Meditators tend to have lower cortisol levels. A study sowed that meditators also have changes in their amygdalae.3 Amygdalae are brain areas involved in fear and the response to threat.

The good news is that you do not need to be a monk meditating in a monastery or a participant in a three-month study to benefit from meditating. Imaging studies have shown that meditating can cause structural changes in the brain in as little as 11 hours of training. A psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco, Elissa Epel, suggests that fitting in short “mini-meditations” during the course of a day, such as taking a few minutes at your desk to focus on your breathing can be effective. “Little moments here and there all matter.”

Previous Healthymemory Blog posts on this topic can be found by entering “The Benefits of Meditation” in the search block.

1Much of this post is based on an article, Meditate, by Jo Marchant in the New Scientist, 27 August 2011, pp. 34-35.

2Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36., p.664

3Social and Affective Neuroscience, 5, p.11.

The Adverse Effects of Social Isolation

October 23, 2011

Lonely people have a higher risk of everything from heart attacks to dementia, and from depression to death. However, people who are satisfied with their social lives sleep better, age more slowly and have more favorable responses to vaccines. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, an expert on the effects of social isolation, says that curing loneliness is as good for your health as giving up smoking. Charles Raison of Emory University studies mind-body interactions agrees with Cacioppo. He has said, “It’s probably the most powerful behavioral finding in the world. People who have rich social lives and warm open relationships don’t get sick and they live longer.”1

Although it is true that some people who are lonely might not take good care of themselves, Cacioppo states that there are direct physiological mechanisms that are related to the effects of stress. Cacioppo has found that genes involved in cortisol signaling and the inflammatory response are up-regulated in lonely people and that immune cells important in fighting bacteria were more active too. His conjecture is that our bodies might have evolved so that in situations of perceived social isolation, they trigger branches of the immune system involved in would healing and bacterial infection. On the other hand, people in a group might favor the immune response for fighting viruses, which are more likely to be spread among people living in close contact.

It is important to note that these differences relate most strongly to how lonely people believe themselves to be, rather than to the actual size of their social network. Cacioppo thinks that our attitude to others is key here. Lonely people become overly sensitive to social threats and see other people as potentially dangerous. In a review of previous studies that he published last year, he found that disabusing lonely people of this attitude reduced loneliness more effective than giving people more opportunities for interaction, or teaching social skills.2

Only one or two close friends might suffice if you are satisfied with your social life. Problems arise when you feel lonely.3 In the jargon of the Healthymemory Blog, this is largely a matter of transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to shared memories and of the knowledge one has of other memories. These memories can form as a result of person-to-person interactions or via means of technology, such as the internet. It should be noted that having hundreds of friends on Facebook would not necessarily indicate that you are not lonely. “What is important is the quality rather than the quantity of these relationships. An evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar, came up with a number he modestly named, “Dunbar’s number.” He bases this number on the size of the human brain and its complexity. He calculates that the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one time to be about 150 . This number includes all degrees of relationships. This is the maximum number of relationships. The number of close, meaningful relationships is much smaller. He estimates that we have a core group of about five people with whom we speak frequently. I find this absolute number a tad small, but to be in the general ballpark. At the other extreme there are about 100 people with whom we speak about once a year. The 150 number is an absolutely maximum of people we can even generously consider as friends. So Facebook users who have friended several hundred friends have essentially rendered the term “friend” meaningless.” (From the Healthymemory Blog post, “Why is Facebook So Popular?”, also see the Healthymemory Blog post “How Many Friends are Too Many?”).

1From “Trust People” in Heal Thyself by Marchant, J. (2011), New Scientist., 27 August, p. 35.

2Cacipoppo, J. (2010). Annals of Behaviorl Medicine, 40, p. 218.

3This part of this post was based heavily on the article by Marchant in the first footnote above.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


October 19, 2011

There are many benefits that accrue to those who are optimistic.1 Optimists recover better from medical procedures, and have healthier immune systems. They live longer both in general and when suffering from conditions such as cancer, heart disease and kidney failure.2

It is common knowledge that negative thoughts and anxiety can make us ill. The belief that we are at risk triggers physiological pathways such as the “flight or fight” response by the sympathetic nervous system. Although these have evolved to protect us from danger, when they are switched on long-term they increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes and dementia.

The new perspective on optimism is that positive beliefs don’t just work by quelling stress. They have unique positive effects. Feeling safe and secure and believing things will turn out fine seems to help the body maintain and repair itself. A review of recent studies concluded that the health benefits of positive thinking happen independently of the harm caused by negative states such as pessimism or stress, and are roughly comparable in magnitude.3

It is thought that optimism reduces stress-induced inflammation and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. It might also reduce susceptibility to disease by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system governs the “rest and digest” response—the counterpart to the “fight or flight” response.

Even if you are not an optimist, you can train yourself to think more positively, and it seems that the more stressed or pessimistic you are to begin with, the better it works. David Cresswell of the Carnegie Mellon University asked students facing exams to write short essays on times when they had displayed qualities that were important to them. The aim was to boost their sense of self-worth. Compared to the control group, these self-affirmed students had lower levels of adrenaline and other fight or flight hormones in their urine on exam day. The effect was greatest for those students who had been most worried about their exam results.4

Tali Sharot has written an interesting book claiming that we have an optimism bias because it provided us with an evolutionary advantage.5 When most people are asked what is going to transpire in the upcoming month, they tend to give an overly optimistic account. Similarly, when asked to provide an estimate of their longevity or of their having certain diseases, they also tend to provide overly optimistic accounts. The people who are able to provide fairly accurate estimates for these same questions tend to be those who are clinically diagnosed as being mildly depressed. This phenomenon is called depressive realism.6 So the idea is that truly accurate realism can be depressive. A species of mildly depressed individuals probably could not have evolved.

To conclude, although optimism can be good, there is also the possibility of too much of a good thing. See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Can Optimism Be Bad?”

1Much of this post is based on an article, Think Positive, by Jo Marchant in the New Scientist, 27 August 2011, p. 34.

2Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39, p.34.

3Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, p.741.

4Health Psychology, 28, p.554.

5Sharot, T. (2011). The Optimistm Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain., New York: Pantheon Books.

6Alloy, L.B., & Abramson.  (1979) Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students:   Sader but wiser.?  Journal of Experimental Psychology:  General, 108, 441-485.



© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Placebo and Nocebo Effects

October 16, 2011

Although you’ve probably heard of placebo effects, it is less likely that you have heard of nocebo effects. The placebo effect occurs when an inert substance, say a sugar pill or a saline injection, has curative or beneficial effects. The nocebo effect is the opposite; merely believing that a drug has harmful effects can make you suffer them. The nocebo effect can even kill.1

The expression, “It’s only a placebo effect” has almost become a cliché. But the placebo effect is one of the most amazing effects in medicine. It underscores the role that the psychology of the mind plays in healing. No respectable research in medicine can be done without a placebo control. Otherwise the effect of whatever is being tested could be attributed to a placebo effect. Placebo effects are the rule, rather than the exception, and they can be substantial.

What is more remarkable is that placebos work even when the people receiving them know that they are placebos. In one study2 the experimental group was given placebo pills with the open label placebo pills presented as “placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) through mind-body self healing processes.” The no treatment control group had the same quality of interaction with the providers, but they were not given the placebo.

The placebo group showed significantly higher scores than the control group on the IBS Global Improvement Scale, the IBS Symptom Severity Scale, and the IBS Adequate Relief Scale.

So the placebo effect cannot be simply the result of deception. Somehow, belief, a psychological variable, affects the body.

1Marchant, J. (2011). Fool Yourself. New Scientist, 27 August, 33.

2Kaptchuk, T.J., Friedlander, E., Kelley, J.M., Sanchez, M.N., Kokkotou, E., Singer, J.P., Kowalczykowski, M., Miller, F.G., Kirsch, I., Lembo, A.J. (2010). Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Http://

Why Have Our Brains Shrunk?

October 12, 2011

According to an article1 in the New Scientist in the past 10,000 to 15,000 years the average size of the human brain compared to the human body has shrunk from 3 to 4 per cent. The question is why. One explanation for this shrinkage is that the brain has evolved to make better use of less gray and white matter. Some genetic studies suggest that our brain’s wiring is more efficient than it was in the past. However, another explanation is that this shrinkage is a sign of a slight decline in our cognitive abilities.

David Geary of the University of Missouri-Columbia believes that after complex societies developed, the less intelligent could survive on the backs of their more intelligent peers. Previously, the less intelligent would either have died or failed to mate. It appears that this decline might be continuing. Studies have found that the more intelligent people are, the fewer children they have. Today intellectual and economic success are not linked with larger families.

It is interesting to speculate whether this trend will continue or perhaps even accelerate given the widespread use of technology. Is this technology making us smarter by giving us greater access to computations and to external storage (transactive memory)? Or is it making us dumber due to our increasing reliance on technology? At one time multiplication tables needed to be memorized. Now the use of calculators is widespread. At one time more information needed to be committed to memory. Now it can be looked up.

There is even the suggestion that at some point we might no longer need our biological brains. Ray Kurzweil contends that there will be a singularity in the future when our biological brains are replaced by silicon brains (See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “Are Our Memories Becoming Too Dependent on Technology,” “Achieving the Max in Technical Transactive Memory,’ and “Brain, Mind, and Body”). These questions are interesting to ponder.

1Robson, D. (2011). A brief history of the brain. New Scientist, 24 September, 40-45.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

An Inspirational and Informative Case of Memory Loss

October 9, 2011

A recent article1 reported a case of memory loss that was both inspirational and informative. This was the story of Lonni Sue Johnston who was an accomplished illustrator, musician, pilot, and farmer. She had done half a dozen covers for the New Yorker magazine. Then a virus invaded her brain causing encephalitis and severely injury her hippocampus. As readers of the Healthymemory Blog know, the hippocampus is a subcortical structure that plays a key role in the formation of new memories. Initially she had trouble walking, talking, and eating. Her cognitive functioning was severely affected. She recognized only a few people, her mother, her sister, and a few faces from her childhood. She could no longer draw.

Her mother had her daughter try to copy simple shapes. Although progress was slow, she eventually was able to draw again. A friend, who was a puzzle-maker, dropped off word search books. These exercises enabled her to rebuild her vocabulary. She started making grids with words hidden in them and created her own puzzles. She created elaborate word lists, then puzzles from the lists, and them images from the puzzles. A grid of words for things that hang in the closet formed the shape of a coat hanger. Words related to trousers formed a pair of pants.

She still can’t recognize art that she adored before her illness, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” for instance, but she can recognize her own past work. Although she has not reached the degree of proficiency that she once had, she has improved enough to have her own exhibition at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

It is instructive to consider what she can and cannot do. She remembers how to fly an airplane, but doesn’t remember the death of her father. She doesn’t remember that she was married for ten years, but she can play Bach suites on her viola. When her mother thanks her for playing, she does not remember that she has played.

She continues to rise at 5:30 in the morning and spends most of her working hours drawing and creating puzzles. Her family is keeping everything she has produced, hoping that it will offer insight into the relationship between neural science and creativity.

It is interesting that most of what has recovered has been what is termed implicit memory (see the immediately preceding blog post, “Explicit and Implicit” memory). Motor skills are primarily in the domain of implicit memory, which appears to be more robust than explicit memory. She had developed an interesting technique for rebuilding her vocabulary, which seems to capitalize on using implicit to make memories explicit.

For another inspirational story of recovery from memory loss, see the Healthymemory Blog Post, “An Amazing Example of the Neuroplasticity of Memory.”

1Pancake, J. (2011). A “self” portrait of an artist with memory loss. Washington Post Style Section, September 19.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Explicit and Implicit Memory

October 5, 2011

When we normally think of memory, we are thinking of explicit memory. Memory techniques and most of the posts on memory in this blog are concerned with explicit memory. Implicit memory refers to memory that occurs without your consciousness awareness. Implicit memory covers a wide range of activities. Classical conditioning, habit learning, emotional memory, procedural and motor memory typically are implicit. So implicit memory involves both maladaptive behaviors, such as bad habits and addiction, but it is also involved in the development of optimal strategies in skill acquisition. Implicit learning could also be helpful for amnesiacs and Alzheimer’s patients.1

Theorists have wondered why we have two types of memory. Although theorists wonder about this, it is nice to have a type of memory that requires little or no consciousness. Although consciousness might not be required, trials or repetitions are required. For example, classical conditioning in which a conditioned stimulus, say a bell, is paired with an unconditioned stimulus, say food, before the sound of the bell alone will cause you, or a dog, to salivate. Similarly habits take repetitions to develop, and procedural and motor skills can take a great deal of practice to perfect. On the other hand, emotions, depending on the strength of the emotion, can be learned quite rapidly.

I think it is obvious why we have explicit memory. Explicit memory involves consciousness. Had we only implicit memory we would be acting like Zombies, behaving and learning with little or no understanding as to why. So it is understandable that most educational practices and most of the Healthymemory Blog posts involve explicit memory. But we should be thankful for these implicit memory processes. Consider how burdensome it would be if all memories were explicit.

We do need to learn more about implicit memory. Much athletic and artistic performance is a matter of practicing to the point where skills become automatic. Usually performance falters when the performer or athlete starts to think about what they are doing. Implicit memory also offers a path into the memories of those for whom explicit memory has been lost such as Alzheimer’s patients and other suffering from traumas to the medial temporal lobes.

1Much of this blog post is taken from an article by David W.L. Wu. Implicit Memory: How It Works and Why We Need It. The Joournal of Young Investigators, Vol. 22, Issue, 1, July 2011.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why Do We Dream?

October 2, 2011

Given that we are asleep about one-third of our lives, and given that dreaming is a predominant part of sleeping, dreaming must be important. Researchers have been working on this problem for many years and an article1 in the New Scientist summarizes some recent research. Changes in electrical activity in the brain and movements of the eyes allow us to identify five stages of sleep. Sleep begins with two stages of light sleep, followed by two stages of deep sleep, followed by a stage of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. This sleep cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes and is repeated until we awaken.

One of the roles of dreaming is memory consolidation (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “To Remember It, Sleep on It). There are a substantial number of studies reporting that sleep facilitates memory. The New Scientist article reported a study in which non-REM dreams boost people’s performance on a problem. The research participants were given an hour of training on a complex maze. Some participants were allowed to take a ninety-minute nap, while other participants were kept awake. When tested again on the maze, people who dreamed showed bigger improvements than people who did not dream. The largest improvements were in people who dreamed about the maze. This dream content could be somewhat bizarre. One of the participants who showed the largest improvement reported the following dream: “there were people at checkpoints in the maze as well as bat caves that he had visited a few years earlier.”

REM dreams contain more emotion, more aggression, and more unknown characters than non-REM dreams, whereas non-REM dreams are more likely to involve friendly encounters. A conjecture is that non-REM dreams help us practice friendly encounters, whereas REM dreams help us to rehearse threats. REM sleep strengthens negative emotional memories2 . The notion here is that if we don’t remember bad experiences, we will not learn from them. It is also thought that reliving the upsetting experience in the absence of the hormonal rush that accompanied the actual event helps to strip away the raw emotion from the memory. This is somewhat analogous to desensitization techniques employed by therapists. Although these REM dreams can be helpful for many situations, they do not work for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. This is unfortunate.

So sleep and dreaming are activities that are important to both cognitive and emotional health. Shortchanging yourself of this needed activity has adverse effects on your memory health.

1Young, E. (2011). The I in Dreaming. New Scientist, 12 March, 36-39.

2Cerebral Cortex, vol 19, p.1158