Archive for July, 2015

Humans as Superorganisms

July 31, 2015

This is the first part of a title, “Humans as Superorganisms:  How Microbes, Viruses, Imprinted Genes and Other Selfish Entities Shape Our Behavior” by Peter Kramer and Paola Bressan of the Department of General Psychology, University of Padua, Italy.  It was published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 2015, 464-481.  The only other article in this general area in the healthy memory blog is “You Have Two Brains.”  That blog barely touched this topic.  The authors note that psychologists and psychiatrists tend to be little aware of the science in this area, although they should be.  I believe that the general public is even less aware.  The objective of this blog post is to increase awareness somewhat.  As you will see, it is definitely relevant.

Let us begin with brain microbes, the most instructive of the lot is Toxoplasma gondii.   Sooner or later this brain microbe will infect about half or even most of us with potentially serious consequences for our mental health.  Eating meat undercooked is by far the most typical, though not the only way of contracting this parasite.  The infection rate is about 10% to countries with religions that promote vegetarianism, to 50% in some developed European countries, and over 70% in some parts of Africa and Latin America.  The adverse consequences of this microbe are potentially reckless behavior, depression, bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorders.  It raises the probability of developing schizophrenia 2.7 times and is the largest known single risk factor, larger than any of the currently known genetic and environmental ones.

Gut microbes are for the most part beneficial.  This is fortunate as there are so many of them.  The human gastrointestinal tract houses up to 100 trillion microorganisms, belonging to more than 7,000 strains:  collectively, these contain 10 times the number of human cells and 100 times as many genes as our genome.  Each of us harbors at least 160 bacterial species, many of which are shared among us but in different proportions.  It is estimated that the gastrointestinal tract contains at least 500 million neurons, it is not surprising that gut microbiota and the brain communicate to each other.  Research has found that ingesting probiotics (microorganisms whose consumption provides health benefits, typically bifidobacteria and lactobacilli) that can mitigate some mood disturbances.  One recent study went beyond self reports showed that probiotics modify healthy women’s brain activity in regions that control processing emotion and sensation, dampening reactions to facial  expressions of anger and fear.  These same brain regions are involved in anxiety disorders.  When more research is done in this area, it is likely that more benefits will be found.

Brain viruses work both ways.  Some viruses exploit humans, but humans are also able to exploit some viruses.  Viruses exploit humans via our genes. For example, cytomegalovirus is a herpes virus that infects a majority of the world’s population.  The infection is usually benign, but not always.  It one large study this was not the case for 15% of the subjects who carried a particular variant of a gene involved in the stabilization of neuronal connections and in synaptic plasticity essential to learning and memory.  In the carriers of this gene variant, maternal cytomegalovirus infection increased fivefold the probability of developing schizophrenia.
We humans have begun to parasitize our parasites.  Some viruses are modified in the laboratory and then used to infect people to treat various genetic conditions, including those that affect the brain.  In one study 16 patients with Parkinson’s disease had a modified virus, containing genes that modulate the neurotransmitter GABA, injected into their brain. Relative to a control group of 21 patients who had received a sham injection, the motor ability of the experimental group improved by about 10%—a modest, but promising start.  In another study, patients with Alzheimer’s were treated with the help of a modified leukemia retrovirus that reduced degeneration.  The retrovirus contained genes that induced infected cells to produce nerve growth factor; cells infected in vitro were then implanted into the patient’s brain, in a specific area  that promotes cortical plasticity and memory.

Evidence is mounting that cells can be modified by the invasion of selfish entities that are not microorganisms or viruses.  These foreign cells come from another human person.  This topic becomes fairly technical, which will preclude further elaboration in this post.  This is also the case with the topic of imprinted genes. Just be aware that all of us carry genes originally designed to produce viruses.

So there is much to be learned.  Although there is much to be worried about, there is room for optimism and hope of new means of treatment,

How Do People Circumvent Amyloid Plaque and Neurofibrillary Tangles

July 28, 2015

As has been mentioned in previous healthy memory blog posts, autopsies have found corpses whose brains have been wreaked with amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, yet who never exhibited any symptoms or behaviors indicating Alzheimer’s.  Yet it is these very substances that provide for a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.  So at best they are a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for Alzheimer’s.  See the healthy memory blog post, “The Myth of Alzheimer’s” to learn whether this is actually a disease and whether a drug solution to this problem is possible.  Unfortunately, the money is in the drugs, so that’s where the effort is concentrated.

The explanation offered is that these people with the substances defining the disease, but without the symptoms of the disease, have build up a cognitive reserve.  In other words their brains have a reserve to draw upon that allow them to circumvent the symptoms of the disease.  This is very likely true and this provides strong evidence that we should start early and continue to build this cognitive reserve throughout our lives.

However, I believe that something else is at work, and I believe that is neuroplasticity.  Neuroplasticity refers the ability for the nervous to rebuild and repair itself.  The existence of neuroplasticity is a fairly new finding.  When I was a graduate student the dogma was that neural damage could not be repaired, and this dogma remained in effect until fairly recently.

To learn more about neuroplasticity enter “neuroplasticity” into the healthy memory blog search box.  I wish more research would be put into the preventive and curative effects of neuoplasticity.  As you’ll see if you read or reread “The Myth of Alzheimer’s,” some knowledgeable people do not believe that a drug cure is possible, but that there are other effective avenues to pursue regarding Alzheimer’s or dementia.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

Loneliness and Dementia

July 27, 2015

The article on which the immediately preceding healthy memory post was based, by Fredrick Kunkle of the Washington Post (July 21, Section A, “Too much TV could raise the risk of Alzheimer’s,” ) also reported a study on how loneliness can increase the likelihood of dementia.  This study was done by Nancy C. Donovan, an associate psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.  Donovan and her team traced 8311 adults in the U.S. Healthy and Retirement Study from 1998 to 2010.  The research participants were 65 and older and were given biennial assessments of their perception of loneliness using a questionnaire.  The researchers examined the participants’ cognitive performance and factored in their health status, sociodemographic status and social network characteristics.

The researchers found that the loneliest people, about 17% of the participants, experienced the most accelerated decline in cognitive performance.  The scores of these people fell 20% faster than those who did not report being lonely.  Donovan concluded that “loneliness is a form of suffering in older people that is prevalent but undetected and untreated in medical practice.  Second, loneliness has consequences.  Our work work shows that loneliness, like depression, is associated with accelerated cognitive decline in older Americans.  The finding is important because it opens up new approaches for preventing and treating Alzheimer’s Disease.”

Ideas for Increasing or Decreasing Your Risk for Alzheimer’s

July 25, 2015

An article by Fredrick Kunkle of the Washington Post (July 21, Section A), “Too much TV could raise the risk of Alzheimer’s, study suggests,”  provides ideas for both increasing or decreasing your risk for Alzheimer’s.  It summarizes the results of research done at the Northern California Institute for Research and Education.  The study tracked people  enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development Study for 25 years beginning in young adulthood.    Their exercise and TV viewing habits were evaluated using questionnaires three times during the course of 25 years.  Low physical activity was defined as burning fewer than 300 calories in a 50-minute session three times a week, which by at least one measure is about 300 calories less than the equivalent of playing a round of golf while riding in a golf cart (See the healthymemory blog post, “Too Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus”).  A high amount of television watching was defined as more than four hours a day.  About 17 percent reported low physical activity, and about 11 percent qualified as heavy TV viewers.  3 percent reported both.

An analysis of the results showed that people who watch a lot television had a 1.5 percent higher risk of performing worse on cognitive tests compared with those who watched less television. Compared with participants with high physical activity and low television viewing, a relatively sedentary individual who exercises little and spends a lot of time in front of the television will be two times more likely to perform more poorly on cognitive tests in midlife.

You should note that the effects of television viewing are much lower than the effects of exercise.  It might be that not all television programs are bad.  True, it is likely that many are, but there are some programs that are cognitively challenging and educational, that is they likely benefit brain and memory health.

These results suggest that sedentary habits set early in life can perhaps have an impact on one’s dementia risk in midlife and later.  One of the researchers, Yaffe, said, “What’s is happening at one’s midlife is setting the stage for what’s happening over the next 20 or 30 years.”  Yet less than half the nation meets recommended exercise standards.   More that 28 million baby boomers are projected to develop Alzheimer’s by 2050.

So how does one increase risk for Alzheimer’s?  Do little or no exercise and much indiscriminate TV viewing.

How does one decrease risk for Alzheimer’s?  Exercise at least a moderate amount and be judicious in your television viewing.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

More on the Myth of Cognitive Decline

July 18, 2015

This post builds on an earlier healthy memory blog post, “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.”  That post summarized research in which simulations indicated that the slow down in processing by older adults could be accounted for by the vastly increased amount of information they have managed to store.  The fact that crystalized intelligence, which is learned knowledge, continues to increase as we age supports this view.  Simply put, there is much more information to sift through, hence the processing appears to be slower.  However, in reviewing the research there are other factors contributing to this myth.

There is research on how the brain changes as we age.  However, autopsies have found many individuals whose brains were wracked with the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles that are taken as the definitive diagnosis for Alzheimer’s, yet showed no behavioral or cognitive indicators of Alzheimer’s when they were alive.  Consequently, data on changes in the brain should be taken with a grain of salt.

What I find interesting are data indicating that some of the data pointing to poorer memory performance by the elderly are due to stereotypes of the elderly that are believed by the elderly.  This is research showing that the elderly show evidence of memory decline when they think the study is about age differences and memory, but the decline is absent when they think that the study has nothing to do with aging (See the healthy memory blog post, “REDIRECT:  Range of Applications”).  So some of the myth of cognitive aging might be due to the elderly themselves believing in stereotypes about aging.

There is also research showing that, although the elderly know of memory strategies to help them remember, they do not use these strategies because they entail the expenditure of cognitive effort.  That is, they are cognitively lazy.  Unfortunately, this cognitive laziness can foster cognitive decline.  This is where the notion “use it or lose it”  applies.  Similarly, physical decline can be accelerated by laziness and the failure to exercise.

So to reiterate a constant message of the healthy memory blog, it is important to stay cognitively, physically, and socially active throughout one’s lifetime.  Moreover, one should not delay these habits until one advances in age.  They provide a prescription for living a healthy, productive, and enjoyable life.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

BABES: New Hope for Alzheimer’s

July 15, 2015

BABES, which stands for Beating Alzheimer’s By Embracing Science (BABES), is an organization founded by a registered nurse, Jamie Tyrone, who found out that she carries a gene that gives her a 91% chance of developing Alzheimer’s around age 65.  This account is taken from an article in the July 5th Washington Post by Franklin Kunkle title “Alzheimer’s spurs the fearful to change their lives to delay it.”

Jamie decided to fight back.  She exercised.  She changed her diet.  She began taking nutritional supplements, including fish oil, vitamin D, vitamin B12, curcumin, turmeric, and an antioxidant called CoQ10.  She started meditating and working mind-bending puzzles, such as Brain HQ.  She joined a health clinic whose regimen is shaped by a UCLA medical study on lifestyle changes that can reverse memory loss in people with symptoms of dementia.  And she started the nonprofit group BABES, to raise money and awareness about dementia.  I hope this money will also be used for assessing and documenting the effectiveness of these practices.

A Harris Poll found that worries about Alzheimer’s crosses all generations;  more than 75% of millennials, Generation Xers and baby boomers worry about what will happen to their memory as they age.  It would have been interesting to find out what these individuals are doing about it.  Just worrying?  Hoping that a drug will be found to prevent or cure Alzheimer’s?  Or taking action such as advocated by BABES and the healthy memory blog.?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association more than 5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s, and as the population ages, the number of cases is expected to increase to 13.5 million by 2050.  The risks for Alzheimer’s  can also be overstated, especially for early onset forms of dementia.  Unless one has a genetic predisposition, Alzheimer.s strikes the majority of people after they reach the age of 65, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.  A history of high bloom pressure, diabetes, smoking, obesity, or cardiovascular problems increases the risk of  dementia.

The article notes that aging itself is the biggest risk factor:  the longer you live, the more likely you are to develop Alzheimer’s  or another form of dementia.  Although this is true, the fundamental question is why aging is a risk factor.  True, there is neurological decline, but is this a factor?  A significant fact not mentioned in the article is that there have been autopsies of people who exhibited no symptoms of Alzheimer’s, yet whose brains were wracked with the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles that provide the definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

I think a more significant fact is that are activity levels, both cognitive and physical, tend to decline as we age.  It is likely that these are primary factors in dementia.  Programs such as BABES and activities such as those recommended in the healthymemory blog are likely preventive.   They foster both mental and physical activity. The Washington Post article hopes that these activities will likely delay but not necessarily prevent Alzheimer’s.  This is a guarded scientific statement.  In life there are no guarantees.  Yet many manage to pass away before suffering from demential.  See the healthy memory blog post, “The Myth of Alzheimer’s.”   This is the title of a book whose is author was a researcher who was reaping large financial rewards looking for drug treatments to fend of the amyloid plaque and neurofibril tangles.  He came to the conclusion that these research efforts were futile, that although there was dementia, and he is conducting research on coping with dementia, Alzheimer’s is not a disease.  It should also be realized that Alois Alzheimer, after whom the disease is named, was never convinced that it was a disease.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

Free Will

July 13, 2015

On the last day of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) convention I attended a session on the general topic of free will.  One of the papers analyzed choices people make as a source of data, which is very close to the approach advocated in a book I had recently read.  I recommended this book to the presenter.  He thanked me as was unaware of this volume.  I decided that a review of this book would be more informative than a discussion of the papers at this session.

Free Will is an important philosophical topic and is also the title of the book by Mark Ballagher in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.  He is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at California State University at Los Angeles.  He is the most remarkable philosophical author I have ever read.  In my experience philosophical writing involves making the same point with the most subtle nuisances over and over again to what is, in my view, beating a dead horse.  I think in many cases Cliff Notes will suffice and one need not suffer the abuse of philosophical writing.  Mark Ballagher is  an exception.   He is writing is highly readable and to the point.  He allows the horse to live.  He neatly dissects the topic and makes his points concisely.

In the case of free will he dismisses arguments that justify free will on external basis not relevant to the philosophical argument per se.  For example, arguing that free will is necessary or there would not basis for law and punishment.  Ballagher states up front that he has no religious beliefs and does not believe in God.  So those issues are out of the way.

He argues that the big problem with the classical argument against free will is that it just assumes determinism is true.  That makes it easy.  But what makes determinism true? Determinism is still an open philosophical and scientific question.  Quantum physics undermines determinism because it entails uncertainty, but there are still clever arguments that attempt to deal with this uncertainty in undermining free will.  But these are arguments, not compelling arguments, and do not disprove free will.  Philosophical arguments against free will do not hold up  to Ballagher’s analysis.

Then he addresses the scientific argument that there is empirical evidence against free will.  Psychologists might argue that subliminal perception and the fact that the vast amount of mental activity is unconscious (see the healthy memory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves”).  But to argue that we are unaware of some, even most of our mental activity, does not mean that we never control or make decisions on the basis of mental activity.

Evidence from neuroscience appears to be stronger.  There is LIbet’s experiment that there was neural activity indicating the action before we decided to perform the action.   Ballagher does not mention this, but I believe that LIbet himself did not believe this, although many have used his data to make the argument.  Haynes’ studies appear to be a more successful attempt to debunk free will, but Ballagher digs into the scientific data to reveal its flaws.

Ballagher even criticizes philosophical arguments for free will, for example Hume’s compatabilism.  Ballagher gets to his point by asking what is meant by Free  Will actually.   It is true that most of our information processing  occurs below our level of consciousness.  Ballagher introduces the notion of torn decisions to explain what he means by free will.  Examples of  torn decisions are which restaurant to go do, which movie to see, which college to go to, and so forth.  One can still argue that these decisions are made subconsciously, but this is an assertion, not proof.  Ballagher would not claim that he has proved the existence of free will.  Rather he has defended it from those who attempt to debunk free will.

It is impossible to do justice to Ballagher’s dissection of this topic.  For those interested in this topic, I strongly recommend reading the book.  I would also recommend reading this book to see how informative philosophy can be when incisively analyzed and concisely written.

I would close by providing my reasons for believing in free will.  I am sure that Ballagher would disagree with what I am about to write on philosophical grounds.  Also it is important to realize the Ballagher makes no attempt to prove the existence of free will.  Rather, he is debunking arguments that attempt to disprove free will.  I would argue for believing in free will on pragmatic grounds.  The basic concept of mindfulness is that we have enough control of our conscious minds to modify our behavior and emotions.  And there is much evidence that mindfulness works for those who believe in and practice mindfulness.  If one does not believe in free will, then there is little basis for trying.  If we are without free will, then we are stuck sitting in front of a television set with no ability to change channels.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

REDIRECT: Range of Applications

July 11, 2015

This is the fourth consecutive post on Timothy Wilson’ REDIRECT.  To get some idea of the range of applications for which REDIRECT is appropriate consider the following chapter titles:

Shaping Our Narratives:  Increasing Personal Well-Being
Shaping Our Kids Narratives:  Becoming Better Parents
Just Say…Volunteer:  Preventing Teenage Pregnancies
Scared Crooked:  Reducing Teenage Violence
Everybody’s Doing It…Or Are They?  Reducing Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Surely They Won’t Like Me—Or Will They? Reducing Prejudice
It’s About Me, Not My Group:  Closing the Achievement Gap
Sustained Change:  Finding Solutions

As you can readily see, the application of REDIRECT is wide.  In reading these chapters, you will gain insights into how redirecting personal narratives work.  You will also read about research assessing effectiveness and find that there are many problems for which REDIRECT works, but some intuitively appealing, and sometimes popular programs do not.  The primary problem is that the majority of programs are not evaluated at all.  However, the book includes two websites that provide such information.  The U.S. Department of Education  created a ss))website called the What Works Clearinghouse, which reviews the research literature and provides educating with descriptions of programs that work (  The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado evaluates the effectiveness of programs that attempt to reduce violence and drug used and publishes their results on a website (

There is way too much research above to even attempt to summarize.  However, one that I find most interesting are stereotypical threats covered in It’s About Me, Not My Group: Closing the Achievement gap.  An example of this used the test Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices Test (Raven APM).  There were three experiments.  One in which the Raven APM was described as an IQ test.  The second in which it was described as just a test.  In the third experiment it was simply described as a bunch of puzzles.  One group of students taking the test was White.  The other group of students was black.  When the Raven APM was described as an IQ test there is a large difference in favor of the white students.  When the Raven APM was described as just a test this gap was greatly reduced. However, when the Raven APM was described as just a bunch of puzzles, the black bar graph overtook the white bar graph.

Another example is the elderly.  When thinking that a memory test was about differences between age groups, the elderly group performed more poorly than the younger group.  However, when they were unaware that the memory test was about age, this difference disappeared.  In reality there are some memory tests in which performance improves with age, and others in which it declines with age.  Apparently the memory test involved in this study was age neutral.

Both researchers and individuals need to be aware of this threat of stereotyping.  Researchers need to be sure that there results are not due to stereotypes.  Individuals need to assure themselves that they are not victimized by the stereotype threat.    So it’s not about me, it’s about my group, and even that is not true.  I will not be defined by a stereotype.  Similarly, we need to be careful that we do not define others in terms of stereotypes.

Redirecting Personal Narratives

July 9, 2015

This is the third post that reviews Wilson’s new book REDIRECT.  First of all it it important to realize that we all have personal narratives.  We might not even realize that we have them, but basically they are stories that inform us what we think about things, people, and most importantly, ourselves.  Consider a student preparing to take an exam.  This student thinks she is smart and expects to do well on the examination.  But supposes she fails the examination.  Then what becomes of her personal narrative.  She might decide that she was really wrong about herself and that actually she is stupid.  She might even drop out of school.  But suppose she decides that she did not study hard enough.  So now she can still think of herself as being smart, but as being a smart person who needs to study more and work harder.  So there are two ways of redirecting her personal narrative.  One that informs her to give up.  And the other that informs her to study more and work harder.

This approach began with the theorizing of Kurt Lewin, who helped found the field of social psychology in the 1930s and 1940s.  Lewin thought that to understand why people do what they do we have to view he world through their eyes and understand how they make sense of things.  Moreover, he had the radical insight that not only do we need to view a problem through other people’s eyes, we can also change they way they view i through relatively simple interventions.

New generations of social psychologists have refined Lewin’s ideas into an approach that Wilson calls story editing.  Storing editing is a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior.  There are core narratives that help people understand some of the most basic questions in life.  At other times, people’s quick initial spin on events, such as the interpretation of the reason for failing a test that was described earlier, is changed.  Story editing in its simplest form induces people to make sense of an event that has gotten under their skin.  This is what Pennebaker’s writing exercise accomplishes (see previous post). This writing techniques is not a magic cure for all psychological problems.  Sometimes we can’t construct a coherent narrative on our own, and in such cases, cognitive-behavioral therapy is specifically designed to teach people how to turn negative thinking patterns into healthier ones.  But the writing technique has proved to be remarkable beneficial for people with a wide range of traumatic experiences.

Sometimes the goal is to provide people with a better interpretation of their  behavior, by spoon feeding them. For example  labeling children as “helpful people” encourages them to internalize this view of themselves.  Research has shown that  having this in their personal narrative has many beneficial effects.  The majority of the book shows how this approach works in a wide range of areas.  All of the research is based on sound experimental methods.  As was shown in the previous post, approaches that are highly appealing, do not necessarily work, and can have adverse consequences.   And this research must be based on actual behavior.  Asking people if it works, does not work.  Wilson has a section under the Testing chapter titled, Don’t Ask, Can’t Tell.

Experimental Evaluation: A Key Theme In REDIRECT

July 7, 2015

This is the second post reviewing Timothy Wilson’s REDIRECT.  Consider the following traumatic incident.  Two police officers responded to a house fire.  When they arrived they heard what every emergency worker dreads—screams for help from inside a house engulfed in flames.  Through a window, they could barely make out the silhouette of a man stumbling and falling, just short of escape.  By the time the police officers managed to get in, it was too late.  The man was “curled up like a baby in his mother’s womb.  That’s what someone burned to death looks like.  One of these officers knew the victim personally.  He was so haunted by seeing his friend die that he had trouble eating and sleeping.  His bosses sympathized and wanted to help, so they did what police departments do: they scheduled a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) session for the fire.  The premised of CISD is that when people have experienced a traumatic event they should air their feelings as soon as possible, so that they don’t bottle up these feelings and develop Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD).  In a typical CISD session, which lasts from three to four hours, participants are asked to describe the traumatic event from their own perspective, express their thoughts and feelings about the event, and relate any physical or psychological  symptoms they are experiencing.  A facilitator  emphasizes that it is normal to have stressful reactions to traumatic events, gives stress management advice, answers questions, and assesses whether participants need any additional services.  Numerous fire and police departments have made CISD the treatment of choice for officers who witness horrific events.  It is also widely used with civilians.  Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, more than nine thousand counselors rushed to New York City to help survivors deal with the trauma and prevent post-traumatic stress disorder, and many of theses counselors employed psychological debriefing techniques,

Now consider another approach.  Rather than asking the traumatized individual to relive the trauma, suppose we let a few weeks go by and see if he is still traumatized by the tragic event.  If so, we could ask him to complete on four consecutive nights, a simple exercise in which he writes down his deepest thoughts and emotions about the experience and how it relates to the rest of his life.  That’s it—no meetings with trained facilitators, no stress management advice, just a writing exercise done by oneself four nights in a two.  This is known as the Pennebacker method.

When CISD was tested properly, and it took a while to test it properly because so many thought it was obvious that it was beneficial.  When they did they found that not only was CISD ineffective, but it might also cause psychological problems.  People who had been treated with the CISD interventions had a significantly higher incidence of PTSD, were more anxious and depressed, and were less content with their lives than those who were not treated.  It turns out that making people undergo CISD right after trauma impedes the natural healing process and might even “freeze” memories of the event.  Harvard psychologist Richard McNally and his colleagues recommended that “for scientific and ethical reasons, professional should cease compulsory debriefing of trauma-exposed people.”  Nevertheless, in 2007 after a disturbed student at Virginia Tech University killed thirty-two students and faculty, students and emergency worker underwent stress-debriefing techniques similar to CISD.

On the other hand, dozens of experiments in which people were randomly assigned to write about personal traumas or mundane topics such as what they did that day.  In the short run, people typically find to express their feelings about traumatic experiences.  But as time goes by, those who do so are better off in a number of respects.  They show improvements in immune-system functioning, are less likely to visit physicians, get better grades in college, and miss fewer days of work.

You will find this theme throughout REDIRECT, well established programs that are highly esteemed proven worthless.  And you will find other programs that, when evaluated with properly designed experiments, are found to be effective.  You will get a sense of what works and what does not work and why.

For more on Pennebaker, go to his homepage

Timothy Wilson and REDIRECT

July 5, 2015

Timothy Wilson gave an interesting talk at APS, but rather than blogging about the talk, I will be doing several blog posts on the recent book he has published, REDIRECT:  Changing the Stories We Live By.  This is a very important book and deserves a thorough treatment, although there is no way I can do justice to this book, and I highly recommend that you read it yourselves.  There is a previous healthy memory blog post on a previous book by Timothy Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves, which I also strongly recommend.

One of the objectives of the book is to debunk the self-help book industry, which is not to say that all self-help books are junk, but most of them definitely are.  Consider such best selling volumes as, You Can Heal Your Life, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and The Secret.  These books ran up more than $700 million in sales in 2005.  When other forms of self-help are added to the mix, such as infomercials, seminars, and sen personal coaches, the total amount spent on self-improvement reached $9.6 billion in 2006.  The fact that there are so many self-help books on the market might indicate that none of them is highly effective.  If one of them did unlock the secret to everlasting happiness, it would corner the market and crown out the others.  In the self-help industry there is what is known as the eighteenth-month rule, which is that the person most likely to buy a self-help book is someone who bought one eighteen months earlier.

Consider “The Secret,” which was distributed as both a film and a companion book released in 2006.  Both have been phenomenology successful.  The DVD has sold more than two million copies and the book more than 4 million copies.  The secret revealed in this book is the “law of attraction,” which says that thinking about something makes it more likely to happen to you.  If you understand this basic “law of the universe,” there are these three simple steps to getting to what you want: first, think about it—focus on the positive and not the negative.  The second step is to believe in what you want and have faith that it will soon be yours.  The third step is to receive the idea of having what you want, feeling as you will once you get.  Now here’s how all this works.  “Thoughts have frequencies that are magnetic, attracting things that are on the same frequency.  Moreover, the frequency you transmit reaches beyond cities, beyond countries, beyond the world.  It reverberates throughout the entire universe.”  Can you believe this?  Is there such stupidity rampant in the world?  Is the name of our species, homo sapiens, a misnomer?  Please tell me that people are buying these books and videos for laughs.  I realize that most self-help books are not this much off the wall, BUT LOOK AT THE LARGE NUMBERS OF SALES!

Now there is nothing wrong with being positive per se.  It is a quite prominent theme in self-help books,  Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was on the New York Times bestseller list and sold more than five million copies.  Positive Psychology has similar problems that were reviewed and remedied in the healthy memory blog post the “Other Side of Positive Psychology.”  And you will see the positivity also plays an important role in REDIRECT, but positivity cannot stand alone.