Archive for March, 2017

A Good Example of What Tim Berners-Lee Fears

March 31, 2017

It can be found in an article by Anthony Failoa and Stephanie Kirchner on page A8 in the 25 March issue of the Washington Post titled, “In Germany, online hate stokes right-wing violence”.

The Reichsburgers are an expanding movement in Germany with similarities to what are known as sovereign citizens groups in the United States.  Reichsburgers  reject the legitimacy of the federal government, seeing politicians and bureaucrats as usurpers.  After authorities  seized illegal weapons from his home, they charged Bangert, a Reichsburger, and five accomplices with plotting attacks on police officers, Jewish centers and refugee shelters.

Jan Rathje, a project leader at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation says, “It’s an international phenomenon of people claiming there are conspiracies going on, people with an anti-Semitic worldview who are also against Muslims, immigrants, and the federal government.  He continued, we’ve reached a point where it’s not just talk.  This kind of thinking is turning violent.”

Preliminary figures for last year show that at least 12,503 crimes were committed by far-right extremists—914 of which were violent.  The worst act was the fatal shooting of a German police officer by a Reichsburger member.  The preliminary figures roughly compete with levels in 2015, but they amount to a leap of nearly 20% from 2014.

Of course, Germans are especially sensitive about this as one time they were governed by Nazis.  Officials say they last time numbers surged this high was in the early 1990s, when Germany recorded a large but short-term jump in neo-Nazi activity following reunification.  Authorities believe the the surge is due, in part, by the arrival of early, mostly Muslim, asylum seekers.   Last year, there were nearly 10 anti-migrant attacks per day, ranging from vandalism to arson, to severe beatings.  Officials say the rise of conspiracy theorist websites, inflammatory fake news, and anti-federal government/right-wing activism have thrown more factors into the mix.

The Reichsburger movement consist of nearly 10,000 individuals who reject the authority of federal, state and city governments.  Some claim that the last real German government was the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler.  Although the Reichsburger movement may be uniquely German, its type of fringe thinking is universal.  German intelligence officials describe some of the tools used by the members, such as fake passports and documents used to declare their own governments, are nearly identical to those used by American sovereign citizens groups.

In October, a 49-year old Reichsburger  declared his home an “independent state,” shot and killed a police officer assigned to seize his hoarded weapons.  Last August, a former “Mr. Germany” and 13 of his supporters tried to prevent his eviction from his “sovereign home” by shooting at police.  Police fired back, severely injuring Ursache.  Two officers were also hurt.  This raid, along with the raid of 11 other apartments found evidence against Bangert and five other people suspected of having formed a far-right extremist network  They are believed by prosecutors to have been planning armed attacks agains police officers, asylum seekers, and Jews.

As the title of the Washington Post article suggests, online hate is stoking much of this right-wing violence.  It would be interesting to compare the number of right wing hate groups in Germany with right wing hate groups in the US.  This article provides some limited information on Germany.

To find evidence about dangerous hate groups in the US go to https://www.splcenter.org
At one time the FBI monitored these dangerous groups.  HM hopes they are continuing these activities.  However, The Southern Poverty Law Center does more than just monitor these groups.  They have programs that have reformed members of these hate groups, and they continue to develop more programs for this essential service.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.

Tim Berners-Lee Speaks Out on Fake News

March 30, 2017

The title  of this post is identical to the title of an article in the Upfront Section in the 18 March 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  Tim Berners-Lee is the creator of the World Wide Web.  He gave it to the world for free to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of the humanity.  So it is interesting what he thinks of the web’s 28th birthday that was reached on 12 March.

Berners-Lee wrote an open letter to mark the web’s 20th birthday.  He wrote that it is too easy for misinformation to spread, because most people get their news from a few social media sites and search engines prioritize content on what people are likely to click on.

He also questioned the ethics of online political campaigning, which exploits vast amounts of data to target various audiences.  He wrote, “Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups,” is that democratic?”

He also said that we are losing control of our personal data, which we divulge to sign up for free services.

Berniers-Lee founded The Web Foundation that plans to work on these issues.

Conclusions for Suggestible You

March 29, 2017

There have been a dozen posts on Erik Vance’s “Suggestible You:  The Curious Science of your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal” because there is so much interesting material that is relevant to a healthy memory.  Nevertheless, these posts just scratch the surface.  Readers are encouraged to read the original book.

The power of our minds is enormous.  Our brains are an extremely valuable gift.  We need to use them to best advantage and to help them grow.  It is hoped that these dozen or so “Suggestible You” posts have accomplished  that.

Not much has been written about meditation, not because meditation was not covered in the book.  It was covered, but HM thought that the importance of meditation had been covered fairly well in other healthy memory blog posts.  And there will be many more posts on mindfulness and meditation in the future.

Suggestibility can have an enormous effect on many medical conditions, but not all of them.  Although Parkinson’s responds well to placebos, Alzheimer’s does not.  This makes sense, because suggestibility  involves the brain and Alzheimer’s destroys the brain.  The healthy memory blog has many posts on how to build a cognitive reserve.  There are many people who died with the defining amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles of Alzheimer’s, have never shown any of the cognitive or behavioral symptoms.  It is said that a cognitive reserve precluded the cognitive and behavioral symptoms.

Anxiety responds to placebos, as does depression.  The pharmaceutical companies are spending a fortune trying to beat placebo effects.   But obsessive-compulsive disorders traditionally do not respond well to placebos.  Although the pain and nausea of cancer can be eased with placebos, tumors cannot.  Vance writes that the spontaneous regression—the sudden retreat of a tumor for no obvious reason is more common than you might think, but is not a product of suggestion (at least not that we know of).

And don’t forget to be suggestible to yourself.  When sad, remember that you can cheer yourself up, and that it is your mind and the chemicals in your body that affect your mood.  And you do have an ability to control your emotions due to your own suggestibility.  Meditation and mindfulness can also help here.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. 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.

Rules from Suggestible You

March 28, 2017

The author Erik Vance closes with several rules that HM feels obliged to pass along to you.

Rule #1:  Don’t endanger yourself.   Some alternative health remedies are physically dangerous.  For example, Mercury is a poison, incorrect chiropractic treatment can seriously damage your spine, and a careless hypnotist can implant terrifying memories that a may not be yours.  HM adds that you need to be aware not only of hypnotists, but also of misguided psychotherapists who can also implant false memories.

Rule #2:  Don’t Go Broke.  Be suspicious of expensive placebos.   Although more expensive placebos might work somewhat better than cheaper ones, there is a limit.  People have gone broke on treatments and approaches that do not work.  HM adds that they key component of all of these treatments is your mind, and you mind costs nothing aside from the time and cognitive effort.

Rule #3:  Don’t send any creature to extinction.  HM would be surprised if this warning was relevant to any HM readers.  But avoid any treatments that endanger animals.

Rule #4:  Know yourself.  Stay within your limits and use your common sense.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.

Suggestible You 11

March 27, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform and Heal.  This is the eleventh post on this book. This post deals with depression.

Vance describes depression as like being chemically sedated into someone you don’t recognize.  He writes that given the choice, he might prefer excruciating chronic pain to depression, then goes on to note many people suffer from both.  He notes that about 7%  of Americans will experience clinical depression this year, losing the United States more than $200 billion.

It is clear that placebos are effective against depression.  Remember that to be declared effective the drug is compared against a placebo.  But when antidepressant drug tests are examined about 75% to 80% of their efficacy can be attributed to placebo effects.  Moreover, there was no real difference between high and low doses, which is odd.  Differences are expected with truly effective drugs.

Moreover, over the past few decals, scientists have noticed a distinct uptick in the power of the placebo effect on pain and depression trials.  Some experts even say that if Prozac had to compete against the placebo effect today, it would not have been cleared by the FDA.  Once a drug clears the Phase III, placebo-controlled trial, it is certified regardless of how it performs in later experiments.

For drug manufacturers trying to get new drugs approved, this is a problem.  But it should not be a problem for depression sufferers.  Remember the reason of including placebos in these tests is that placebo effects are real.  Placebos are much less expensive than the drugs, and carry no side effects.  HM wonders, as long as they are 75% to 80% effective, why take the drug.  Physicians should also be asking the same question.  Now it is clear why drug companies continue to try to develop new anti-depressants.  But after some many decades of research, with all the antidepressants already approved, and with placebos being largely effective without any adverse effect why bother.? At some point the difficulty in exceeding the effect of the placebo might prove so expensive that drug companies might abandon the effort.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.

Suggestible You 10

March 26, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.     This is the tenth post on this book.  This post describe the role of  placebos in addiction.

Approximately 1 in 10 Americans is addicted to some kind of drug—mostly alcohol, although opioid addiction is gaining quickly.  Traditionally addiction has been viewed as a moral failing or a lack of willpower.  Today we understand addiction is mostly physiological, specifically around dopamine.  This is not surprising since this neurotransmitter deals with the anticipation and enjoyment of rewards.  Vance note that this includes sugar, sex, money, a high score on Grand Theft, as well as drugs.

Unfortunately, drug use doesn’t just change the way you feel for a couple of hours: it can also change the brain itself.  When the nervous system is presented with an abundance of pleasurable chemical stimulation through drug use, the nervous system gets overwhelmed and shuts down its production of dopamine to bring itself back into equilibrium.  This creates a bad feedback loop in which the person finds himself short on dopamine whenever he’s not using the drug.   Food no longer tastes as good, and sex can lose its thrill.  Taking the drug that caused this problem is the only way to get back to something close to normal.

Addiction literally changes the way the brain works.  Not only do addicts have less dopamine from drug overuse, but also their  dopamine receptors are affected (either changing their numbers or changing how well they transmit messages).  Regular drug uses twists memories so both the drug and the circumstances surrounding the drug use.  Addiction causes the brain’s impulse control centers to shut down, which greatly increases the chances of relapse.  If cocaine addicts are shown an image of blow for as little as 33 milliseconds, which is too fast to register in consciousness, they will have immediate cravings.

Vance sees addiction as sort of a perversion of all the brain circuits and processes  in his book.  Consequently he thinks that suggestion and expectation may hold the answers to overcoming it.  Naloxone, the drug that first helped expose the chemical nature of placebos and blocks placebo responses altogether, wasn’t invented for placebo research.  It serves a crucial role in medicine as an emergency treatment for drug overdoses.  It’s also pretty effective at blocking the effects of heroin or oxycodone.
A closely related drug, naltrexone, is one of the most effective treatments for alcohol abuse.

People get tipsy when a nonalcoholic beer is substituted for an alcoholic beer.  This also works the other way.  A study at Minot State University doctored root beer to give it the same alcohol level as regular beer.The researchers offered the doctored drink to a group of unsuspecting volunteers, while another group received regular beer.  Not surprisingly, both groups got tipsy after a few drinks. What is interesting is that those who drank beer actually absorbed more alcohol into their blood than those who thought they were drinking soda but were in fact consuming just as much alcohol.

It is clear that work on treatment is still a work in progress, but progress is being made.

Some two million Americans are addicted to prescription opioid drugs and about 19,000 died from overdoses in 2014.  This is about twice the number who died from heroin overdoses, and three times the number who died from cocaine.  One theory of pain is that after an injury, the pain never leaves, it just gets gradually covered up by the body’s internal medicine.  A team led by Bradley Taylor gave naloxone to patients who had recovered from an injury and for many of them the pain came right back as if pain had been hiding under the surface for this whole time.  These patients displayed some of the hallmarks of opioid withdrawal.  During the process of recovering from pain, we actually become dependent on our own opioids.   Taylor thinks that this may be the key to understanding not only addiction, but also the switch from short-term to chronic pain.

Given this understanding, NIH researcher Luana Colloca, whom we have encountered previously, is studying the role placebos my play.  She mixed a few placebo pills into a group of pain patients’ medication.  Each week they have five or six pain pills and one or two placebos.  As the week progressed, she upped the placebos and topped the opioids until the artificial was administered only about half the time.  The results of the project are not reported, but the idea is clear.  The patient is trained to expect pain relief when taking a pill.  Gradually she takes the pill away and lets the patient’s own expectation cover the pain relief.  The patient uses her expectations to switch from an external drug to an internal one.

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.     This is the tenth post on this book.  This post describe the role of  placebos in addiction.

Approximately 1 in 10 Americans is addicted to some kind of drug—mostly alcohol, although opioid addiction is gaining quickly.  Traditionally addiction has been viewed as a moral failing or a lack of willpower.  Today we understand addiction is mostly physiological, specifically around dopamine.  This is not surprising since this neurotransmitter deals with the anticipation and enjoyment of rewards.  Vance note that this includes sugar, sex, money, a high score on Grand Theft, as well as drugs.

Unfortunately, drug use doesn’t just change the way you feel for a couple of hours: it can also change the brain itself.  When the nervous system is presented with an abundance of pleasurable chemical stimulation through drug use, the nervous system gets overwhelmed and shuts down its production of dopamine to bring itself back into equilibrium.  This creates a bad feedback loop in which the person finds himself short on dopamine whenever he’s not using the drug.   Food no longer tastes as good, and sex can lose its thrill.  Taking the drug that caused this problem is the only way to get back to something close to normal.

Addiction literally changes the way the brain works.  Not only do addicts have less dopamine from drug overuse, but also their  dopamine receptors are affected (either changing their numbers or changing how well they transmit messages).  Regular drug uses twists memories so both the drug and the circumstances surrounding the drug use.  Addiction causes the brain’s impulse control centers to shut down, which greatly increases the chances of relapse.  If cocaine addicts are shown an image of blow for as little as 33 milliseconds, which is too fast to register in consciousness, they will have immediate cravings.

Vance sees addiction as sort of a perversion of all the brain circuits and processes  in his book.  Consequently he thinks that suggestion and expectation may hold the answers to overcoming it.  Naloxone, the drug that first helped expose the chemical nature of placebos and blocks placebo responses altogether, wasn’t invented for placebo research.  It serves a crucial role in medicine as an emergency treatment for drug overdoses.  It’s also pretty effective at blocking the effects of heroin or oxycodone.
A closely related drug, naltrexone, is one of the most effective treatments for alcohol abuse.

People get tipsy when a nonalcoholic beer is substituted for an alcoholic beer.  This also works the other way.  A study at Minot State University doctored root beer to give it the same alcohol level as regular beer.The researchers offered the doctored drink to a group of unsuspecting volunteers, while another group received regular beer.  Not surprisingly, both groups got tipsy after a few drinks. What is interesting is that those who drank beer actually absorbed more alcohol into their blood than those who thought they were drinking soda but were in fact consuming just as much alcohol.

It is clear that work on treatment is still a work in progress, but progress is being made.

Some two million Americans are addicted to prescription opioid drugs and about 19,000 died from overdoses in 2014.  This is about twice the number who died from heroin overdoses, and three times the number who died from cocaine.  One theory of pain is that after an injury, the pain never leaves, it just gets gradually covered up by the body’s internal medicine.  A team led by Bradley Taylor gave naloxone to patients who had recovered from an injury and for many of them the pain came right back as if pain had been hiding under the surface for this whole time.  These patients displayed some of the hallmarks of opioid withdrawal.  During the process of recovering from pain, we actually become dependent on our own opioids.   Taylor thinks that this may be the key to understanding not only addiction, but also the switch from short-term to chronic pain.

Given this understanding, NIH researcher Luana Colloca, whom we have encountered previously, is studying the role placebos my play.  She mixed a few placebo pills into a group of pain patients’ medication.  Each week they have five or six pain pills and one or two placebos.  As the week progressed, she upped the placebos and topped the opioids until the artificial was administered only about half the time.  The results of the project are not reported, but the idea is clear.  The patient is trained to expect pain relief when taking a pill.  Gradually she takes the pill away and lets the patient’s own expectation cover the pain relief.  The patient uses her expectations to switch from an external drug to an internal one.

Suggestible You 9

March 25, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive”, Transform, and Heal.  This post is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the ninth post on this book.

This post is on what might be called “marketing placebos.”  You can market yourself to yourself through what you think about yourself and via self talk.  “I  have a chance, I think I should apply for the job, position, …”  “versus “I have no chance for the job, position, …, so I’m not going to apply.”  A much larger example might be, “life is not worth living” versus, “Such an opportunity life presents, think of all the things I can learn, all the things I can do, the nice friends I can have.”  In fact, just forcing ourselves to smile can make us feel better.

Marketing placebos are like pain placebos in that they require healthy input from the reasoning prefrontal parts of the brain.  Most companies achieve this in one of two ways.  One way is by creating, cultivating, and enhancing a particular brand.  The other is via the price tag.  If a company tells you it has a new line of brain-enhancing drinks, and you believe it, you’ll likely find that, your cognitive performance actually improves after drinking it.  And if they tell you it’s an especially expensive brand, your performance will likely go up even more.  This same principle applies to branding.  Vance notes that studies suggest that athletes perform better when they drink favored water out of a Gatorade bottle.  And students’ test scores rise when they use a pen labeled “MIT.”

The researchers who did these studies correlated the subjects’ level of suggestibility to how they thought about the nature of intelligence and learning.  Those who thought of intelligence as more or less fixed were more suggestible to brands than those who saw intelligence as fluid.  So readers of the healthy memory blog should not be as suggestible to brands  as people who do not read this blog.  This is because growth mindsets are repeatedly advocated in this blog.  If this point is not obvious, enter “growth mindsets” or “Carol Dweck” into the healthy memory blog search block.

Fad diets can be regarded as an example of marketing placebos.  Key to the success of these diets, is a good story that makes the diet compelling.  The placebo effect likely plays a large part in the initial success of the diet.  And in the long term, few of them work.  Lost weight usually finds a way to return.

Vance argues that this same expectation applies to most of the “toxins” we read about.   He writes, “Evil free radicals and toxins are just stories.  We buy them or we don’t.”  And remember the role that social inputs play in amplifying placebo effects.

These effects extend to athletics.runners who thought they were getting blood doping shaved 1.2% of their times.  Another study demonstrated that weight lifters improved their performance by 12% to 16% when they were taken caffeine (a known, albeit legal performance enhancer), but were actually only taking placebos.

Suggestible You 8

March 24, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This post is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the eighth post on this book.

“Satan Worshippers, Aliens, and Other Memories of Things That Never Happened” is the title of Chapter 6.  It begins with the following quote from Josh Billings, “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.”  This post will explain why this is so, and that a misunderstanding of memory and how memory works led to much misery between and among families and to the false imprisonment of innocent people.

As healthy memory blog readers should know, we do not have direct contact or knowledge with the physical world.  See the healthy memory blog posts “Understanding Beliefs,” “Revising Beliefs,” and “More on Revising Beliefs.”  We construct mental models based on the data coming from our senses.  As we experience more and learn more we develop new models, revise old models, and form connections among related or associated models.

Too many people think that our eyes and ears act like video cameras and tape recorders, that we see and hear what is and that these recordings are permanent and accurate.  Consequently, in the courts a great deal of belief is put on eyewitness testimony, when data indicate that eyewitness testimony is flawed and prone to error.

In reality, our eyes and ears are taking light and sound and turning them into electrical signals in the brain.  The brain then constructs a version of what is being perceived and what makes sense.  Expectations from prior models play an important role in this process.  Our brains have to make assumptions and take shortcuts and sometimes makes mistakes.  Optical illusions, blind spots, and hallucinations are all examples of how our brains misinterpret what is being perceived—sometime to very confusing and dangerous ends.

Similarly, memories are not like flash drives.  Memory is an integrated constructive process that is constantly refining itself, rebuilding, restructuring, and finding shortcuts.  And sometimes, our memories play tricks on us,  Memory processes can be divided into three stages.  First the information has to be encoded.  Then there is the process of consolidation during storage.  The third phase is retrieval, which is the recall of the memory.  Changes occur throughout this process and some changes can be erroneous.

The failure to understand how memory works and its malleability that can lead produce errors resulted in teachers and caretakers being falsely accused of sexually abusing children, and of Satanic rituals.  As near as can be understood, the people who conducted these investigations honestly believed that these children were being sexually abused.  But their beliefs poisoned their investigations.  They asked leading questions and repeatedly questioned these children to the point of exhaustion.  Unfortunately, the courts and juries, who were equally ignorant of how memory works, sent innocent people to jail.  This problem continued for much longer than it should have, and it took way too many years for these erroneous convictions to be overturned.

There were also too many cases of clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, many with Freudian conceptions of sex and repressed memories, inadvertently place memories of sexual abuse in the patients’ and clients’ minds.  Innocent parents were accused by their own children of sexual abuse.  These nightmares outdid the fiction of  Franz Kafka.   Imagine the pain that this caused within families. HM thinks that most of theses errors have been corrected, but he still fears that there are still therapists who should be avoided.  Be vary careful when choosing a therapist, and keep a watchful eye out doing the therapy.

Elizabeth Loftus is the leading psychologist who conducted research in this area, and who spent countless frustrating hours testifying in court.

Enter “false memory” into the healthy memory search block to find more posts on this topic.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. 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.

Suggestible You 7

March 23, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This post is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the seventh post on this book.

This post is about hypnosis.  During the late 50s and early 60s researchers at Stanford and Harvard came up with 12-step scales to quantify how suggestible to hypnosis someone is.  Their research led these researchers to conclude that hypnotic susceptibility is a fixed trait.  Susceptibility to hypnosis doesn’t change much  from late adolescence until death.  The most spectacular  forms of hypnosis  work only on the most hypnotizable 10% or so of the population.  Another 10% do not respond to hypnosis at all, and 80% fall somewhere in between.

A Canadian psychologist Pierre Rainville successfully hypnotized one group not to feel any pain from hot water poured on their hands and another group to believe that they could feel pain but that it would not bother them.  Their brains were scanned with positron emission tomography (PET) and found two very different neural reactions to pain.  This suggested that the sensation of pain and the emotions associated with it have separate triggers as well a how crucial emotion is to our experience of pain.  There is also neurological evidence that there are two different pathways for pain.  One dealing with the response to the pain itself, and the second to the interpretation of the pain.  It is this latter response that characterized chronic pain.  See the previous healthy memory blog posts “Pain and the Second Dart,”  “To Treat Chronic Pain, Look to the Brain Not Body,” and “Controlling Pain in Our Minds.”

Rainville’s work indicates that hypnosis often involves parts of the brain associated with attention, emotion regulation, and pain.  People seem  to be wired differently for hypnosis, and that this doesn’t change much over the course of our lives.  Research has also shown that the capacity to be hypnotized is not tied to intelligence or willpower.

Some tend to think of hypnosis as being another placebo.  The consensus  is that they are not related.  Hypnotic susceptibility remains relatively stable throughout one’s life, whereas placebo responsiveness can change from day to day.  And the drug naloxone, which is effective at blocking placebo responses doesn’t block hypnosis.  So although they are not the same, they both tap into a deep force in the brain:  expectation.

Psychologist Marcel Kinsbourne says, “There is a wave of bottom-up information coming up from the external world, up into your brain.  There is a wave of information coming from the cortex that consists of your evaluations, your beliefs, your expectations.  Consciousness is these two waves hitting each other.  It’s a collision.  And this is where hypnosis and placebos do their work.”

Suggestible You 6

March 22, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This post is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the sixth post on this book.

This post is on nocebos.  Remember that placebo is Latin for “I shall please.”  Nocebo means “I shall harm.”  So nocebos can be thought of as negative placebos.

In 1886 a physician named John Mackenzie was treating a woman with a serious case of hay fever and asthma.  For a variety of reasons, he was not convinced that the patient’s condition was fully authentic.  For her next visit he place a rose in his office.  As soon as she sat it she had powerful allergic reaction that brought on an asthma attack.  The flower was artificial and served as the nocebo.

Cholecystokinin (CCK) is a key messenger in activating intestinal functions, including digestion and the release of gastric acid and bile.  It also plays a role in making you feel full after a good meal.  But if you inject CCK into someone, it causes anxiety and nausea and can induce panic attacks.  It also seems to increase pain by lessening the impact of internal opioids.  Fabrizio Benedetti set up an experiment with patients recovering from  minor surgery in which he gave them a drug and told them it would make their pain worse when it was actually just saline.  The patients did report more pain with the saltwater injection.  Then Benedetti blocked their brains’  CCK release with another drug.  Now the patients felt better when the CCK was blocked.  Vance wrote,”What opioids are for placebos is what CCK is for nocebos; a mechanism giving expectation power in the body.  And whereas blocking opioids killed the placebo response and made patients feel worse, blocking CCK actually supercharged pain relief by allow the brain’s internal pharmacy to run wild.”

Nocebo effects are much easier to create than placebo effects.  Negative expectations can be stronger than positive expectations.  Vance note that nocebos and placebos in the brain take two different routes.  They look similar, go to similar places, share some of the same highways, but still are totally different routes, and nocebos take all the best shortcuts.  This does make  sense, as the aversion to pain is fundamental not just to being human, but also to being alive.  Colloca notes that although the nocebo affects the same reward/expectation regions in the brain, it also includes one more that placebos do not:  fear.  The hippocampus plays a key role in the storage of memories and it also plays a key role in fear conditioning anxiety.  Brain imaging indicates that while the hippocampus is mostly absent from placebo effects, it lights up during the experience of nocebos.

Fear is at the heart of nocebos, and fear is a powerful emotion.  Fear headlines in the news elicit much stronger responses that do pleasant ones.  In 2014, even before anyone had died of Ebola in the United States, 25% of Americans were worried they or their families could contract it.  Thousands of people visited doctors claiming they had signs of the virus, and 650 of those people had symptoms serious enough for their cases to be passed on to federal officials.  As it turned out, only four people in the United States had the disease:  a visitor who got it in Liberia, two nurses who had treated him, and a doctor who had been working in an Ebola.

So we need to be careful to not let our fears get out of hand.  And let us hope that doctors make more use of nocebos in treating pain.

Suggestible You 5

March 21, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the fifth post on this book.

Vance describes the story of a man diagnosed ten years ago being severely debilitated in late stage Parkinson.  He volunteered for an experiment in which the medication was directly injected into a critical part of the brain.  To control for the placebo effect, these experiments require sham surgery that copies everything about the surgery except for the critical drug injected into the brain.  The study involved 51 participants.  Twenty-four people got the real surgery and 27 got the sham surgery.  The drug proved to be a failure.  However, the participant of interest did show a remarkable recovery.  However, he was one of those who had received sham surgery.

This dramatic example makes the point that there are large individual differences in the response to placebos.  Kathryn Hall of Harvard University was interested in studying possible genetic bases for this enhanced responsively.  She discovered the COMT gene.  The COMT genes codes for an enzyme in the brain, also called COMT, or catechol-O-methyltransferase.  Vance writes that this is one of the best-studied brain pathways in the world, and may be the most fascinating link he has discovered as a science writer.

Here’s how it works.  Dopamine has enormous power and is important for body movement and good moods.  However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.  A mechanism is need to sweep up the bits we don’t need—the extra dopamine molecules floating around our skull that aren’t doing anything useful.  COMT gets rid of the excess dopamine molecules.  COMT is an extremely long and complicated enzyyme.  Fortunately, it is one within its machinery that defines how well it works.  Depending upon an individual’s genetics there are two types of this crucial portion of the enzyme:  valine (val) or methionine (met).  If one’s brain has val in that one spot, the enzyme performs its job of removing excess dopamine.  However, if the enzyme has met in that one spot, it is much less effective.  The brain is left with lots of excessive dopamine.

Remember that each trait in the body is a combination from each of the parents.  COMT works in a similar manner.  So we have val/met, but also val/vals and met/mets.  So 25% of the population are val/vals,and 25% are met/mets, 50% of the population are val/mets.

Hall conducted an experiment pairing COMT genes with placebos.  She enrolled 262 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) into an experimental treatment involving acupuncture.  She selected patients with either moderate or severe cases of IBS and then divided them into three groups. One group, the true control group, was put on a waiting list and given nothing.  The other two groups were told that they would get acupuncture, but they were unknowingly given fake acupuncture.  Half of the participants got treatment from a comforting, caring acupuncturist while the others got treatment from a cold, uncaring acupuncturist.

Here are the results.  People on the waiting list stayed the same regardless of their genes.

Met/mets with the uncaring acupuncturist  did better than the val/vals, but just barely.

Val/vals with the caring acupuncturist did about as well as the val/vals with the uncaring acupuncturist and all the people on the waiting list. In short, no placebo effect.

The val/mets who got the caring acupuncturist did about five times better.

The results of the met/mets who got the caring doctor went through the roof.

Clearly the kind words  meant something totally different to one genotype than it did with the others.  Hall had divided the placebo responders into measurable groups.Met/mets—those people who were born with lazy enzymes and a little too much dopamine in their responses were more prone to placebo responses.

Although the COMT gene plays a large role in the creation of the COMT enzyme, it’s not the only gene that does so.  Other genes help build the enzyme that can boost or cripple its performance, as well as all the other genes in you body that affect dopamine.    COMT also goes after epinephrine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that are key to regulating adrenaline, cardiac, function, and our response to stress.

So, in summary, the interactions are complex.  But different factors that contribute to the immune response are being identified.  Genes, the administrator of the placebo, and our fellow human beings are factors.

Suggestible You 4

March 20, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the fourth post on this book.

An important question is whether there is a way to enhance the placebo effect, or even make it permanent.  In 2015 Karin Jensen, a placebo researcher at Harvard,  published an experiment that showed how our brains can self-medicate even when we are not paying attention.  She set up a two phase experiment in which subjects wore a painful heat pad that flared up whenever they saw a picture of a certain face and died down when they saw another, similar face.  The brain learns that one face is bad and the other face is good.

In the next phase, after the relationship had been ingrained in the participant, she turned the heat to somewhere in the middle.  This time she showed the picture for only a fraction of a second, so the participants could barely see the face.  The subconscious mind could spot the difference, but the conscious mind could not.  Nevertheless the participants continued to feel pain with the bad face, and less pain with the good face, even when they could not consciously distinguish the faces.  With enough practice, people can unconsciously trigger the placebo effect with the flash of one face, even though their conscious mind has no idea its happening.

The placebo effect can also be altered by peer pressure.  One of Wager’s students, Leonie Koban, set up an experiment in which people  rated various levels of heat pain applied to their arms by a metal pad.  After gauging each person’s pain threshold, she asked them to rate how much pain they expected to feel before she applied it, but with one additional crucial element.  They would also be able to see how other people had rated the same pain.  These previous reports of pain were totally made up.  Still, people who felt a strong pain rated it lower if that’s what they thought others had done.  And people who were told others had felt a lot of pain rated the pain highly even if it was mild.  This peer pressure placebo effect was twice as strong as the normal placebo effect!  As a check, Koban recorded their skin conductance, which is a physiological response to pain.  On the basis of skin conductance it was impossible to differentiate from a genuine experience.

It seems that people are programmed with a preexisting need to go with the herd.  People quickly tapped into a more powerful placebo response than if they had spent hours conditioning themselves.  So someone else’s opinion is not only powerful, but it can be more powerful than your experience and even more powerful than repeated conditioning.  So we are hardwired to follow other people’s opinions.

Vance suggests that there might be some biochemistry involved in this interaction.  Luana did an experiment similar to the one reported in Suggestible You 2 in which a green screen induced a placebo effect.  The participants in this new experiment were given a dose of vasopressin before the green screen experiment. In yet another experiment the participants were given a dose of a related hormone, oxytocin.  These drugs greatly enhanced the placebo effect.  These hormones play a large role in social interactions among people.  Vasopressin seems to regulate social communication and conciliatory behavior.  Oxytocin seems to be involved in experiences of empathy, trust, and social learning.  So the same chemicals that draw us together as humans and allow us to work together can also boost the placebo response altogether.

Suggestible You 3

March 19, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the third post on this book.

Irving Kirsch took up psychology out of a philosophical curiosity about the brain.  He mentored Ted Kaptchuk, a researcher who earned a Chinese doctorate in Eastern medicine and was an expert in acupuncture and other alternative therapies.  These two set up a lab at Harvard and for a long time their names have been synonymous with placebo research.  Kaptchuk’s work spans many complicated aspects of placebo research—genetic, biochemical—but Vance’s favorite study is a relatively simple one.  He handed patients pills and told them it was a placebo.  He explained that placebos had been shown to be very effective agains all manner of conditions, and so forth.  When these patients took the pill, it still worked.  Not as well as a secret placebo—but it worked, even though the people taking it knew it wasn’t real.

Tor Wager conducted research using functional magnetic resonance imaging f(MRI).  fMRI measures blood flow in the brain.  This blood flow is used to infer brain activity.  It is captured in voxels. A single voxel has about 63,000 neurons in it (and four times as much connective).  Nevertheless, fMRI has been invaluable in gaining insights regarding the brain.  Wager used fMRI to capture the placebo effect in action.  The first experiment used electric shock.  The research participants saw either a red or a blue spiral on a screen warning them hey would get either a strong or a mild shock, which would hit between 3 and 12 seconds later to keep them off guard (and build expectation).  Wager  looked two skin creams explaining that a one was designed to reduce the  pain and the other was a placebo.  Actually both skin creams were placebos, but the research participants said they felt less pain with the “active” cream.

The second experiment used a hot metal pad that seared the skin for 20 seconds.  This time the screen just read, “Get Ready,” and then the pad heated up.  As in the first experiment, the research participants received placebo and “pain killing” creams, both of which were actually placebos.  Wager surreptitiously lowered the temperature of the heat pad on the fake “active” cream, fooling the research participants into thinking that the cream was reducing the level of pain they felt.  Then, in the last phase (as Collca had with Vance’s shocks), he kept the temperature high.  Researchers carefully recorded how much pain the subjects reported feeling, and Wager also had their fMRI brain scans.  What the research participants reported about their pain tracked perfectly with the activation of several parts of the brain associated with pain, such as the anterior cingulate cortex (which plays a role in emotions, reward systems, and empathy), the thalamus (which handles sensory perception and alertness), and the insula (which is related to consciousness and perception).  Those reporting less pain from the placebo effect showed less activity in the key pain-related brain regions.  And those who felt less of the placebo effect showed more activity.  So these research participants were not imaging less pain; they were feeling it.

More importantly, Wager observed the route that the placebo response takes from anticipation to the release of drugs inside the brain.  Pain signals normally begin in the more primitive base of the brain (relaying information from wherever in the body the pain starts) and radiate outwards.  What Ager observed was backward, with the pain signals starting in the prefrontal cortex—the most advanced logic part of the brain with executive functions—and working back to the more primitive regions.  Vance noted that this seemed to suggest a sort of collision of information:  half originating in the body as pain, and half originating in the advanced part of the brain as expectation.  Whatever comes out of that collision is what we feel.

The following summary comes directly from Vance’s book,”Pain, like any sensation, starts in the body, goes up the spine, and then travels to the deeper brain structures that distribute that information to places like the prefrontal cortex, where we can contemplate it.  Placebos, on the other hand, seem to start in the prefrontal cortex (just behind the right temple) and go backward.  They work their way to parts of the brain that handle opioids and release chemicals that dull the pain.  That also seem to tamp down activity in the parts of the brain that recognize pain in the first place.  And you feel better.  All in a fraction of a second.”

How powerful these placebo effects are varies.  In some people they barely register.  However, in others the opioid dumps can be so powerful that people become physically addicted to their own internal opioids, similar, in theory, to how people become addicted to laudanum. One theory even suggests that chronic pain might be the result of a brain addicted to its inner pharmacy, in essence, looking for a fix.

More than opioids are involved.  Over the past few decades, other brain chemical have been shown to trigger the placebo effect.    Our inner pharmacy also stocks endocannabinoids—the same chemicals found in marijuana that play an important role in pain suppression—and serotonin,  which is important intestinal movements and is the primary neurotransmitter involved in feelings of happiness and well-being.

Suggestible You 2

March 18, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the second post on this book.

Vance participated in an experiment in Luana Colloca’s laboratory on the campus of the National Institutes of Health.  Dr. Colloca attached a variety of devices to Vance including two on his left hand.  One device delivered the shock, the other, on his middle finger.  She said that this device will tap into the A-B fibers in his hand that will occasionally interrupt the shocks, nearly cutting the pain altogether.  As he explained it, the difference between the weak shock and the powerful shock would be that one has a crossing guard and the other does not.  He was told that he would know which one was coming via a screen that will turn green when the A-B fibers are blocking the pain and red when they are not.

Vance said that the small shock feels like a pinprick or a pinch, but the bigger shock doesn’t feel like a bigger pinprick. He said that it’s more like a dull squeeze wrapped in fire, localized in his hand but seemingly all over his body as well.  Colloca slowly increased the strength of the shock, working Vance up a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the worst tolerable pain), testing his pain threshold.  He agreed to a shock level of 6, although he said that this was very uncomfortable.  He went through two rounds of 12 shocks each.

On the third round he noticed that the green (weak) shock) had gotten slightly worse—maybe from a 1 to a 2.   He thinks there might be a problem with the shock blocker.  They ran through 11 more trials and the torture session was over.  When Colloca returned she told him his pain threshold was smack in the middle of the bell curve for pain, which is 100 hertz of electricity.  She remarked that pain thresholds vary tremendously among individuals.

Then Colloca pointed to a sheet of paper showing Vance’s third round and dropped a surprise telling him, “In Block 3 we used green and red both at 100 hertz.  You felt the green as less painful, compared to the red, when actually you received the same, and that is the placebo effect.”  There never was any magic pain-lessening wire.

The question regarding why the placebo effect works was addressed by a team in Scotland in 1975.  We do have a form of homemade opioids called endorphins.  These endorphins play a number of tiles in our brain, such as regulating circadian rhythms,  appetite and body temperature.  They are the primary chemicals that make sex feel so good.  Two neurologists, Jon Levine and Howard Fields conducted a simple experiment with people in pain after dental surgery.

The plan was to give a group of patients who had recently had a dental procedure either a placebo or naloxone.  Naloxone blocks the endorphins.  They told all of the patients that they were receiving a painkiller.  As expected, many of those  who got the placebo felt less pain, whereas the naloxone group felt miserable, as their own natural opioid (endorphin) generator was being blocked.  When naloxone was given to the genuine placebo group, they also felt miserable.  So this study does show that pain placebos work because the brain self-medicates with the opioid like drug endorphins.

Suggestible You

March 17, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.  One of HM’s pet peeves is the expression,”It’s just a placebo response.”  For HM, the placebo response is the most interesting effect in medicine.

Artificial intelligence pioneer Daniel Dennet has written.  “A mind is fundamentally an anticipator, an expectation-generator.”  Expectation is a system of shortcuts our brains have developed to get through the day.  Otherwise we would be stopping every few seconds to figure things out.  Consequently if what you anticipate is negative your mind will make things look (or feel) worse than they actually are.  However, if you expect the best some amazing things can happen in your body.  Somewhere between this expectation and reality lies the mind’s power to heal itself.  Erik Vance writes, “Our uncanny ability to deceive ourselves has startling implications for our health and well-being… Everyone’s door to expectation has a different key, and everyone is susceptible in a slightly different way.  But once that door is unlocked we have access to an amazing power to heal ourselves.”

Placebo comes from the Latin for “I shall please,” and traditionally refers to anything inert that has an effect on a patient.  Vance writes, “…usually lasting less than a day but sometimes longer:  a sugar pill, a saline injection, or sham surgery, often mixed with a little smoke and mirrors.  In other words, nothing.  But in the world of expectation, sometimes nothing is more powerful than something—if it’s wrapped in the right packaging.”

Vance writes that this packaging is different for everybody.  What allows a placebo to work is a topic of continuing research, the most recent of which is presented in his book.    It involves psychology, chemistry, and genetics, aided by the power of storytelling.  The manner in which the placebo is presented is important, which does not necessarily involve deception.  Placebos can be effective even when the recipient knows that it is a placebo.

Vance writes of the importance of theater or how the placebo is presented and to individual differences.  For example, depression patients respond better to yellow placebo pills than to blue ones.  Bigger ones work better than smaller ones, but only to a certain point.  Bear this in mind should you purchase placebo pills on Amazon, and there is a wide variety of placebos available on Amazon.  Fake injections work better than fake pills.  Vance goes on to note that “if you’re French, suppositories work better than either.  Take a quiet moment to ponder the significance of that.”

Placebos are a very complex topic, so a series of posts will be required, which shall follow immediately.

The Happiness U-Curve

March 16, 2017

This post is based on a section with the same subtitle in “The Cognitive Upside of Aging” an article by Alexandra Michel in the February 2017 “Observer”, a publication of the Association of Psychological Science (APS).

Despite all the negative components of aging, researchers consistently find a happiness paradox:  As the body declines, happiness tends to increase.  Across the lifespan this “Positivity effect” follows a U-shaped pattern:  happiness starts out high in late adolescence, bottoms out in middle age, and reaches a second zenith in old age.

A 2011 Gallup analysis of 500,000 phone interviews found that “a septuagenarian is far more likely than someone in their 30s to have high emotional health.  This happiness advantage held true even after controlling for demographic factors, including gender, race, education, marital status, employment, and regional location.

This happiness U-shape appears across the world.  Economists Andrew Oswald and David G. Blanchfower documented this pattern in more than 500,000 people living in more than 70 different countries.  Their analysis concluded that from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, people around the world tend to be happiest in their old age regardless of their nationality.

Oswald says, “Only in their 50s do most people emerge from the low period.  But encouragingly, by the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit then on average you are as happy and mentally healthy as a 20 year old.  Perhaps realizing that such feelings are completely normal in midlife might even help individuals survive this phase better.”

This universality of happiness U-curve implies the aging may play a positive role in the brain.  A team of Australian researchers led by Leanne Williams, who is now at the Stanford University School of Medicine, argues that a combination of neurological changes and life experiences account for this phenomenon.  Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor emotional processing as people of various ages viewed photographs of different facial expressions, the researchers found that older people were more emotionally stable and less reactive to negative emotional stimuli than younger people.

Contrary to the ubiquitous negative stereotypes of declining memory and cognitive integrity, Williams and colleagues found emotional well-being may increase with normal aging.  Their study included 242 individuals (122 males and 120 females) divided up into four major age categories:  12-19 years, 20-29 years, 30-49 years, and 50-79 years.  Participants were assessed in the scanner for the neural activation evoked by emotions of threat and happiness depicted in facial expressions.  After being shown a photograph of a face, participants had to select the best option for identifying the emotion being displayed in the photograph.  They also rated on a 1-to-5 scale, the intensity of the emotion being displayed.
Rather than showing an inevitable decline across all functions, the images displayed a linear increase in emotional stability with age, meaning that people in their 70s ultimately experience better emotional well-being than most people in their 20s.

The fMRI results suggest that as we age, the way our brains process emotional stimuli  changes in ways that favor emotional stability.  The brain scans indicated that the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which is a brain area involved in the governance of emotional functions, processed stimuli differently across the lifespan, contributing to better emotional stability for older adults.  As we age, the mPFC areas become increasingly active while processing negative emotions compared with positive ones, suggesting that older people were comparatively better at controlling negative emotions.

This article ends as follows: “Ultimately Williams and colleagues argue that as we age this combination of neural processing, as well as an accumulation of life experience, provides older adults with the neural tools to take life in stride—a capability their younger counterparts will just have to wait for.”

Finding Focus

March 15, 2017

This post is based on a section with the same subtitle in “The Cognitive Upside of Aging” is an article by Alexandra Michel in the February 2017 Observer, and publication of the Association for Psychological Science (APS).  This study  used data collected from TestMyBrain.org and was published in “Psychological Science.”  It found another unexpected boom for aging brains:  Sustained attention tends to improve over time, peaking in the mid-40s.

This study was led by Francesca C. Fortenbaugh, Joseph DeGutis, and Michael S. Esterman of the Boston Attention and Learning Laboratory at the VA Boston Healthcare System.  This study tested sustained attention across 10,430 adults using a specialized task for identifying individual differences in people’s ability to focus on a single task over 4 minutes.  DeGutis said in a statement, “While younger adults may excel in the speed and flexibility of information processing, adults approaching their middle-years may have the greatest capacity to remain focused.  One current hypothesis  is that compared to younger adults, adults in their mid-years mind-wander less, leading to better sustained attention performance.  This sample was larger than all previous efforts to model changes in sustained-attention performance during development, aging, or across the life span combined, which allows us to more precisely model transition periods in performance across the life span using segmented linear regression”

Sustained attention underlies several important cognitive processes, including learning, perception, and memory.  Lapses in attention can lead to serious problems ranging from difficulty at work to an increased risk of car accidents.  Measuring attention across individuals is itself a challenge; attention fluctuates, sometimes dramatically, from moment to moment.

The researchers used a new tool they developed:  the gradual-onset continuos performance task (gradCPT).  Participants were shown serious of grayscale photographs go 10 city scenes and 10 mountain scenes.  One photograph gradually transitioned into the next every 800 milliseconds, so that as one image faded, a new image steadily took its place.

There were 5,027 male and 5,403 female participants between  10 and 70 years old who completed the gradCPT on TestMyBrain.org between March and September of 2014.  The participants were told to press the space bar whenever they saw a city scene, but to withhold a response when the image was a mountain scene.  Here the goal was to create a task that required frequent responses from participants while having a relatively low cognitive demand.  Identifying the differences between the two scenes was easy, but carefully attending to the transitions repeatedly became challenging over time.

By analyzing mean reaction time, reaction time variability, hits, misses, discrimination ability, and criterion (a measure of strategy or willingness to respond in the case of uncertainty), the researchers were able to tease apart the changes in unsustained attention across the lifespan.  From the ages 10 through 16, gains in both reaction times and discrimination ability were extremely large.  After age 16, gains in these skills were much smaller until they peaked around age 43.

A factor analysis of the results suggests than people also begin to use different cognitive strategies as they age.  Younger individuals demonstrated faster reaction times (due to either super information-processing speed or more liberal response strategy), whereas older individuals showed a slower, more cautious strategy and evidence they made more adjustments after a mistake.

The Cognitive Upside of Aging

March 14, 2017

“The Cognitive Upside of Aging” is an article by Alexandra Michel in the February 2017 “Observer”, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science (APS).  This article corrects some major misconceptions about memory and aging.  This realization is important as the expectation is that “the next ten years will witness an increase of about 236 million people aged 65 or older throughout the world.”

A 2014 survey on perceptions of brain health and aging conducted by the AARP found that people believed that the brain peaks at age 29 before beginning to deteriorate by age 53.  Now these are opinions regarding brain health and aging.  Actual research on this topic reveals how woefully in error these conceptions are.

Joshua K. Hartshone of Boston College, and Laura Germine of the Harvard Medical School reanalyzed an old set of scores from the Wechsler IQ and memory tests taken by a geographically diverse group of adults in the 1990s.  Scores from 2,450 test-takers were divided into 13 age categories representing people between the ages of 16 and 89.  The researchers then charted peaks in a variety of cognitive skills, ranging from memory to vocabulary, from adolescence through old age.

There was no single apex in overall cognitive skill.  Instead, there was a huge variation in cognitive capabilities across the lifespan.  The cognitive peaks were all over the place.  Hartshone said that this was the “smoking gun” that it’s not all downhill for the aging brain.

Although these data were important, the pool of participants was too small to make any solid conclusions.  Most psychological research is done with people in their late teens and early 20s.  Getting people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s into the lab is a major obstacle.

Hartshone and Germine were quite creative in addressing this obstacle.  The decided to use viral Internet quizzes.  Along with Ken Nakayama of Harvard University Germine founded TestMyBrain.org.   This website hosts a variety of short cognitive tests that users can complete within minutes.  Since the site’s foundation in 2008, data has been collected from more than 1.7 million volunteers across the country.  Hartshone has founded a website called GamesWithWords.org as a “Web-based laboratory” for studying language.

Both Hartshone and Germine thought it important for the tests on the websites to be short and engaging  to ensure that participants enjoyed taking each one so much that they would be interested in taking a few more or even forwarding them to friends.  They wanted to make taking a cognitive battery just as easy and fun as taking one of the not-so-scientific personality tests people like to take on social media sites.  More than 3 million people have taken quizzes on the two websites.

In this new set of studies Hartshone and Germine used TestMyBrain.org and GamesWithWords.org to collect large samples of data across five specific cognitive tasks.  Three of these tasks, digit symbol coding, verbal working memory, and vocabulary, overlapped with the tasks from the Wechsler exam used in the previous study.  The researchers also included a widely used test of emotional perception, which was not included in the original Wechsler tests.

These test data collected from online participants shows a very clear picture of cognitive peaks across the lifespan, one that largely matched the same pattern of results from the decades-old Wechsler tests.  Information processing speed crested early in life, around the age of 18 or 19.  Short-term memory improved until age 25 before beginning to decline around 35.

However, many cognitive proficiencies, vocabulary, math, general knowledge, and verbal comprehension did not peak until much later in life.  These results make sense because people should continue to learn new things and gather new experiences as they age.  These skills are usually regarded as belonging to crystalized intelligence.  Vocabulary skills had no single high point and continued to improve well into participants’ late 60s and early 70s.  The Wechsler data show vocabulary skills topping out mostly in the 40s.  To reconcile these results Germine and Hartshone inconcluded the General Social Survey, which has been testing people’s vocabularies for decades.  These data confirmed that there really has been a steady shift in vocabulary performance  over the last few decades.

Germine and Hartshone wrote, “With the increase in the proportion of adults engaged in cognitively demanding careers, it may be that ages of peak performance are later in the more recent Internet sample, particularly for vocabulary.  This could be related to the Flynn effect that IQ has increased steadily in modern times, possibly because of increasing amounts of time devoted to mental activity.”

The Flynn Effect refers to the need to recalibrate the IQ test so that they would have a mean of 100.  For years, Flynn argued that this must be some sort of artifact.  See the healthy memory blog post “More on Flynn and the Flynn Effect” to learn how Flynn decided that this increase was real and not an artifact.  Moreover, he attributed it not just to the amount, but also to the types of cognitive processing people were doing.

Emotional skill also improved with age.  To test this ability, researchers asked participants to identify the mood of a person based only on a photograph of the individual’s eyes.  A menu provided a selection of potential options such as  fearful, tentative, or playful for each photograph.  Adults in their 40s and 50s consistently outperformed much younger adults.  This ability had a much longer plateau than any of the other cognitive skills that were tested.  Germaine and Hartshone wrote “The peak in emotion-recognition ability was also much broader than any of the other tasks, which reflects a long period of relative stability in performance between the ages of 40 and 60 years.”

The researchers recruited another large set of more than 18,000 online participants between the ages of 10 and 73 to confirm their visual and verbal working-memory findings.  The replication found the same pattern of cognitive peaks as the other experiments.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.

Denying the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us

March 13, 2017

“Denying the Grave:  Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us” is the third of three books of three books to be reviewed from an article titled, “That’s What You Think:  Why reason and evidence won’t change our minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the 27 February 2017 issue of “The New Yorker.”

The authors of this book are a psychiatrist, Jack Gorman, and his daughter, Sara Gorman, a public health specialist.  They probe the gap between what science tells us and what we tell ourselves.  Their concern is with those persistent beliefs which are not just demonstrably false, but also potentially deadly, like the conviction that vaccines are hazardous.

The Gormans argue that ways of thinking that now seem self-destructive must at some point have been adaptive.  They dedicate many pages to the confirmation bias, which they claim has a physiological component.  This research suggests that people experience genuine pleasure—a rush of dopamine—when processing information that supports their beliefs.  They observe,”It feels good to ‘stick to our guns’ even if we are wrong.”

The Gormans do not just want to catalogue the ways we go wrong;  they want to correct them.  Providing people with accurate information does not seem to help; people simply discount it.  They write that “the challenge that remains is to figure out how to address the tendencies that lead to false scientific belief.”

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone

March 12, 2017

“The Knowledge Illusion:  Why We Never Think Alone” is  the second of three books to be reviewed from an article titled, “That’s What You Think:  Why reason and evidence won’t change our minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the 27 February 2017 issue of “The New Yorker.”

The authors of this book, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach also believe that sociability is the key  to how the human mind functions, or, more accurately, malfunctions.  In a study conducted on Yale University, graduate students were ask to rate their understanding of everyday devices to include toilets, zippers, and cinder blocks.  Then they were asked to write detailed step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again.  Doing this revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped.

Sloan and Fernbach call this the “illusion of explanatory depth” and find this effect just about everywhere.  They say that what allows us to press in this belief is other people.  This is something we are very good at.  We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hang together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history.  They argue that we collaborate so well that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.  They argue that this borderlessness is crucial to what we consider progress.  “As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance;  If everyone insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amount to much.  When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.”

Where this gets us into trouble, according to Sloan and Fernbach, is in the political domain.  “It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates,  and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about.”

Sloan and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.  Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also to locate Crimea on a map.  The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention.

The Enigma of Reason

March 11, 2017

“The Enigma of Reason”  by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber is the first of three books to be reviewed from an article titled, “That’s What You Think:  Why reason and evidence won’t change our minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the 27 February 2017 issue of “The New Yorker.”

Ms. Kolbert notes hat since research in the nineteen-seventies revealed that we humans can’t think straight and that reasonable—seeming people are often totally irrational, the question remains:  How did we come to be this way.  “The Enigma of Reason” is the first book to be discussed that attempts to address this question.  The argument of Mercier and Sperber is that our biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate.  Cooperation is difficult to establish and also difficult to sustain.  They argue that reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; instead it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in cooperative groups.

Mercier and Sperber write “Reason is an adaptation to the hyper social niche humans have evolved for themselves.”  Habits of mind that seem to be weird or goofy or just plain dumb from and intellectual point of view prove shrewd when seen from an “interactionist” perspective.

They use confirmation bias to further their argument.  This is the tendency we have to embrace information that supports our forms of faulty thinking.  “Confirmation bias” is the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments.  One of the most famous was conducted at Stanford.  Researchers rounded up a group of students who had opposing opinions on capital punishment.  Half of these students were in favor of it and thought that it deterred crime;  the other half were against it and thought that it had no effect on crime.

These students were asked to respond to two studies, which the students did not know had been made up.  One of these studies was pro and the other was anti and presented what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics.  The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence  highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing.  The students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse.  At the end of the study, the students were again asked about their views.  The only difference was that this time the students were more in favor of their original views than they had been originally.

To further their point Mercier and Sperber suggest what would happen to a mouse that thinks as we do.  If such a mouse were bent on confirming its belief that no cats were around, he would soon be dinner.  To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or under appreciated threats, it’s a trait that should have been selected against.  The fact that we both have survived, Mercier and Sperber argue, proves that it must have some adaptive functions, and they maintain that that function is related to our “hypersociability.”

Mercier and Serber prefer the term “myside bias” to “confirmation bias.”  They point out that we humans are not randomly credulous.  Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses.  In an experiment illustrating this post by Mercier and some European colleagues participants were asked to answer a series of simple reasoning problems.  Then they were asked to explain their responses, and were given a chance to modify them.  Only fifteen% changed their minds in step two.

In step three, participants were shown the same problems, along with their answer and the answer of another participant who had come to a different conclusion.  However, the responses presented to them as some else’s  were actually their own and vice versa.  Only about half the participants realized what was going one,  Among the remaining half, suddenly people became much more critical.  Almost 60% rejected the responses they’d earlier been satisfied with.

Bill Gates’ Robot Tax Alone Won’t Save Jobs: Here’s What Will

March 10, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Sumit Paul-Choudhury in the 4 March  2017 issue of the New Scientist.   Bill Gates argued that we should raise the same amount of money by taxing robots as we would lose in payroll taxes from the humans they supplant.  Then this money could be directed towards more human-dependent jobs, such as caring for the young, old and sick.  EU legislators rejected just such a proposal due to lobbying efforts by the robotics industry.

The article makes the valid assertion that automation is the biggest challenge to employment in the 21st century.  Research has shown that far more jobs are lost to automation than to outsourcing.  Moreover, this will get worse as machines become ever more capable of doing human jobs—not just those involving physical labor, but ones involving thinking also.

The common argument from the robot revolution is that previous upheavals have always created new kinds of jobs to replace the ones that have gone extinct.  But previously when automation hit one sector, employees would decamp to other industries.  However, the sweep of machine learning means that many sectors are automating simultaneously.  So perhaps it’s not about how many jobs ar left after the machines are done taking their pick, but which ones.

The article suggests that the evidence might not be very satisfying.  The rise of the “gig economy”, in which algorithms direct low-skilled human workers.  Although this might be an employer’s dream, it is frequently an insecure, unfulfilling and sometimes exploitative grind for workers.

The article argues that to stop this, it’s employers that need to be convinced, not the people making the technology, but it will be difficult to convince the employers who have huge incentives to replace all-too-human workers with machines that never stop working and never get paid.

Although the article fails to mention this, there is the danger of extremely high unemployment, particularly among the well-educated and formerly  well-off.  There have been several previous healthy memory blog posts by HM in which he discusses the future he was offered in the 1950s.  In elementary school we were told that by today technological advances would vastly increase leisure time.  Bear in mind that in the 50s very few mothers worked.  Moreover, technology has advanced far more than anticipated.  So, why is everyone working so hard?  Where is this promised leisure?

Unfortunately modern economies are predicated on growth.  They must grow which requires people to purchase junk and to keep working.  These economies are running towards disaster.  People need to demand the leisure promised in the 50s.   Paul-Choudry’s article does suggest that a business friendly middle ground might be for governments to subsidize reductions in working hours, an approach that has fended off labour crises before.  HM thinks that Paul-Choudhury has vastly underestimated the dangers of job losses.  HM thinks that this is of a magnitude that will threaten the stability of society.  So the working week will need to be drastically shortened to 20 hours (See the Healthymemory Blog Post “More on Rest”).

There have been previous healthy memory blog posts on having a basic minimum income, which also will need to be passed.

The primary forces arguing for these changes are the risks of societal collapse.

However, people need to have a purpose (ikigai) in their lives.  They need to have eudaemonic not hedonic pursuits.  Eudaemonic pursuits build societies; hedonic pursuits destroy society.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.

What We Know

March 9, 2017

The following section from Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose”  can be regarded as the major take away from the book:

“*A strong, transcending purpose in life is good for you health and well-being and protects against disease and death.

*Purpose is a high-level goal (which is motivating) that is deeply valued (which is also motivating).

*The type of values that constitute a purpose matters.

*A strong, transcending purpose in life reduces defensiveness to change.

*Your purpose in life might be revealed by God…but it might not (hardly a conclusion!).

*Purposeful living is a dynamic process the requires energy and will power.

*Five positive behaviors that can improve energy and willpower are sleep, presence, activity, creativity, and eating well (SPACE).

*Purposeful living is not just a higher-order aspiration for the well-heeled.  It’s for everyone.”

HM hopes that these posts have convinced you to lead a life with purpose (ikigai).  If he has not, he has failed and encourages you to read Dr. Strecher’s book.  Even if you have been convinced, you will find more detailed guidance in his book.

Learning How to Think

March 8, 2017

This post is another in the series of posts on Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  In section 13 titled SAILING THROUGH STORMS is this quotation from David Foster Wallace:

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise control over how and what you think.  It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how to construct meaning from experience.  Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

This quote bears serious pondering.  It provides an implicit message from the healthy memory blog.  Learning to think is key to a healthy memory.  And exercising control over what we think is central to a healthy memory.  Maintaining control over how we think is the reason for all the posts on mindfulness and meditation.

This quotation of Wallace warrants daily review.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.

SPACE

March 7, 2017

SPACE is the title of Part Three of Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

SPACE is an acronym that stands for Sleep, Presence, Activity, Creativity, and Eating.  An entire chapter is devoted to each of these topics, as the author goes into great detail regarding the importance and the implementation of these activities.  Only Presence will be addressed in the healthy memory blog.

Presence begins with this quote from Steve Jobs:
“If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is.  If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to  hear more subtle things—that’s when  you intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more.  Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.  You see so much more that you could see before.  It’s a discipline; you have to practice.”

Jobs is talking about meditation.  He personally consulted Zen masters and made periodic trips to Japan to sharpen his meditations.

Much has been written in the healthy memory blog about meditation.  What will be included here is “LOVING-KINDNESS MEDITATION.”  This particular meditation is famous.  One reason for its popularity comes from the recordings of the brains of Buddhist monks while doing this meditation.  The phrase, “off-the-charts” might capture these recordings.

*Find a comfortable place to sit, either in a chair or on the floor (HM reclines, which is okay provided you do not fall asleep).  Close your eyes.  Take a few moments to just be, noticing the sounds, smells, and feelings.  Allowing yourself to settle down, turn your attention to your breathing.

*Notice the way you body automatically, effortlessly inhales and exhales.

*Don’t try to manipulate you breath in any way.  Notice the feeling of air moving in and out of the nose and the easy, natural way your body moves

*Imagine yourself in a beautiful place.  As you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May I be happy and free of suffering.”  (You can use many other salutary phrases here such as “health” or “strength”—or create your own.)

*Next, imagine a new person entering your beautiful place.  This is a person you care for a great deal.  Again, as you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May you be happy and free of suffering.”

*Now move to another person entering your beautiful place.  This is a person who provokes no feeling of like or dislike.  A neutral person.  It could be a bank teller or a waitress you recently interacted with.  As you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May you be happy and free of suffering.”
*Now move to another person.  A person who provokes feelings of dislike.  Again as you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May you be happy and free of suffering.”

*Finally, extend these feeling of loving-kindness to the world.  To all living beings.  Bring them into your special place and say to yourself. “May all beings be happy and free of suffering.”

*Take a minute or so with your eyes shut before going back to your daily routine.

Self-Transcendence

March 6, 2017

Self-Transcendence is the title of Chapter 4 in Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter. It begins with two quotes.

The first is from Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz and helped fellow prisoners through the horror.
“Only to the extent that someone is living out this self-transcendence of human existence is he truly human or does he become his true self.  He becomes so, not by concerning himself with his self’s actualization, but by forgetting himself and giving himself, overlooking himself and focusing outward.”

The second is from band member Chrissie Hyde.
“Make the other band members look and sound good.  Bring out the best in them; that’s your job.”

Dr. Strecher writes, “This emphasis on individual’s own actualization heralded the “me generation”—baby boomers intent on jogging, dieting, and meditating (or navel-gazing, in the words of their detractors) to reach “self-realization” and “self-fulfillment.”

Viktor found this self-focus was narcissistic and ultimately detrimental to the self.  He suggested that valid fulfillment in life occurs only when a person transcends the self.  As was noted in an earlier blog, psychologist Abraham Maslow understood in the latter part of his career the importance of Frankl’s words.  In 1969 he wrote, “The fully developed (and very fortunate) human being working under the best conditions tends to be motivated by values which transcend his self.  They are not selfish anymore in the old sense of that term.”

Maslow found the “transcenders” were better able to see connections between disparate ideas, which make them better innovators and discoverers.  He discovered that transcending scientists exhibited “humility, a sense of ignorance, a feeling of smallness, awe before the tremendousness of the universe.”

Dr. Strecher finds it remarkable that Abraham Maslow, at the pinnacle of his field, would change his hugely popular model, saying essentially, I was wrong.”  Dr Strecher asks , “Who does that?”

Dr Stretcher notes that “It’s commonly believed that people are naturally selfish and need to be taught—by parents, schools, churches—to become transcending, altruistic, and empathic.”  Isn’t being selfish most beneficial.  If self-transcended is part of the nature of living things, wouldn’t animals act this way.

Dr. Strecher writes that the biologist Frans de Waal has shown altruistic behavior among dolphins, whales, elephants, chimpanzees, and bonobos and has concluded that “there is increasing evidence that the brain is hardwired for social connection, and that the same empathy mechanism propose to underlie human altruism may underlie the altruism of other animals.

Finding Your Purpose

March 5, 2017

The title of this post is the same as the title of a section in Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

Dr. Strecher notes that many people confuse or conflate “purpose” with “meaning” in life.   He makes a very important distinction.  It is, “Meaning in life asks the question ‘Why am I here?”  He notes that responses to this question vary greatly and may even include ‘No reason.’  Purpose in life is concerned  with what we most deeply value, and purposeful living is concerned with whether we’re living for what matters most.”

However, he then goes into a six step procedure for finding you purpose followed by making a written statement.  Although HM sees some value in making a written statement, needing such a detailed process to identify purpose makes me think that individual is unlikely to be successful in pursuing “ikigai.”

Ikigai is supposed to define the purpose that makes us want to get up in the morning.  This should be fairly obvious.  An additional proviso should be that this purpose is to achieve eudaedonomic  rather than hedonic ends.  And as was mentioned previously, this purpose can be divided into sub purposes, which can change overtime

Of course, it is good to follow your progress.  Depending upon individual preferences a written record can be kept or a summary mental review can be done before going to sleep.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.

In Search of the Daimon Inside

March 4, 2017

The title of this post is the title of a section in Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

The daimon is the term the Greeks used to represent the inner self.  Dr. Strecher and his research team was interested in learning how the affirmation of core values works in the brain.  This research was led by Emily Falk of the University of Pennsylvania.  The researchers started with already-identified  part of the brain related to the “self.”  It’s in an area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).  This part of the brain becomes active when we are processing information about our selves.

The researchers invited a group of sedentary people who would benefit from physical activity and gave each of them an accelerometer to measure activity changes.  After a week of learning about each participant’s activity patterns, the researchers used fMRI.  They asked half of them about the values they cared about most while scanning their brains.  For example, they’d ask a person who valued religion to “think of a time when religious values might give you a purpose in life.  Participants in the control group were asked to think about the values they cared least about.

Four four weeks following the scanning session, while their physical activity was still being monitored,  all participants were sent messages about increasing it.  Participants in the values affirmation group also received messages about their most important values, whereas those in the control group received messages about their least important values.

Compared to the control group, those in the group who considered their most important core values had greater activation of their vmPFC and went to increase their physical activity over the next month.  Moreover, the more the vmPFC became activated, the more physical activity occurred over the next month.  So the affirmation of core  purposeful values seemed to “open their minds” to change.

In another study psychologist Jennifer Crocker and her colleagues asked study participants either to write about their most important core value and why it was meaningful to them (the values affirmation group) or to write about their least important value and why it might be important and meaningful to other people (the control group).  Then, the participants were asked to rate how the essay they wrote made them feel.  Finally, they tested the participants’ defensiveness.  Participants affirming their most important values felt love, connectedness, and empathy, and these transcending feelings reduced their defensiveness.

Our Best Purpose

March 3, 2017

This is another in a series of blogs based on Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

Aristotle’s name means “best purpose.”  Victor Strecher’s best purpose, as stated by him, follows:
“My purpose is to help others create a purpose in their lives, to teach every student as if they were my own daughter, to be an engaged husband and father, and to enjoy love and beauty”

Actually Dr. Strecher reveals four sub purposes in his overall best purpose.  Careful consideration indicates that, as time is limited, they can sometimes conflict with each other.   This needs to be recognized and time and effort needs to be prioritized.  Circumstances will required reprioritizing these sub purposes over time.

Dr, Stretcher recognizes that there are different goals for the different roles in one’s life.  This is clear from his overall best purpose.  He makes the following recommendation:
“So let your purpose be big, lofty, even outrageous!  I want to wake up in the morning with my purpose foremost in my mind and go to bed at night knowing that I worked toward it.  Did I help other create  purpose in their lives?  Did I spend enough quality time with my students?  With my wife?  Did I take time to enjoy my walk to work?  If not, I’ve got some explaining to do—to myself.”

When Dr. Strecher was in Germany  one of the participants in his group raised his hand and said, “Well, Dr. Strecher, we know that Hitler had a purpose.”  He responded with this warning.  Philosophy can be a dangerous thing.  A bad purpose can go horribly wrong, HANDLE WITH CARE! So how, exactly, do we handle our purpose with care?  This is where Aristotle, again, helps us out, giving us buoys to guide our boat.  What are the values we should value most deeply?  Aristotle’s answer:  courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, justice, ambition, good temper, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, and modesty.  Dr. Strecher suggests that today, “awesome” might be more appropriate than “magnificence.”

He goes further to note that “A great  purpose in life follows from values that reflect an understanding of the world.”

People with a strong life purpose are more likely to live longer, healthier lives.  They engage in healthy behaviors and are more willing to change unhealthy behaviors.  There have been many studies examining the impact of self-affirmation on reducing defensiveness to change.  “Affirming core values has been shown to increase resistance to disease, to improving physical activity and diet, quitting smoking, and reducing alcohol consumption and excessive sun exposure, among other self-improving behaviors.”

Research Into Eudaemonia vs. Hedonia

March 2, 2017

This is another in a series of blogs based on Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is “ikigai”, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

Aristotle stated that eudaemonia is found more among those who have “kept acquisition of external goods within moderate limits” and that “any excessive amount of such things must either cause its possessor some injury, or, at any rate, bring him no benefit.  Niemiec and colleagues were interested in whether eudaemonic versus hedonic aspiration  of individuals just beginning their careers had an influence on well-being.  So they did a study of graduating college students, and found first, and not surprisingly, that they were more likely to attain what they had aspired to.  Those who placed importance on hedonic pursuits, money, fame, and image were more likely to find them, whereas those who aspired to eudaemonic pursuits, greater personal growth, relationships, and community, were more likely to achieve them.

The key finding follows:  Those who attained hedonic aspirations reported greater anxiety and  physical symptoms of poor health, whereas those attaining eudaemonic aspirations reported greater life satisfaction, self-esteem, and positive feelings.

The next question is whether we vary in our neural responses to eudaemonic versus hedonic rewards.  To address this question researchers examined activation in the ventral striatum of adolescents when engaged in eudaemonic versus hedonic decision making.  The ventral striatum is located in a part deep in the brain that’s associated with rewards. The adolescents’ brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while making eudaemonic decisions to donate money to others or hedonic decisions to keep the money.  Adolescents who had more blood flow to the ventral striatum during eudaemonic versus hedonic choices could be identified.  The symptoms of depression were measured in the beginning of the study and one year later.  After a year, adolescents with greater activation of their brain’s reward system while giving money had, on average, a decline in depressive symptoms, whereas those with greater activation in this system when keeping the money had an increase in depressive symptoms.

Dr. Strecher concludes, “This further confirms that eudaemonic and hedonic forms of happiness are indeed different and that they produce very different effects.”

Eudaemonia vs. Hedonia

March 1, 2017

This is another in a series of blogs based on Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.  It is important to realize that there are two kinds of happiness that need to be understood to achieve effective ikigai.

The ancient Greeks thought that every person had an inner daimon and that we should find and live in harmony with it.  Aristotle used the word eudaemonia  to describe the connection with the true self. This concept of a true self that transcends one’s ego-focused desires is found in many Western and Eastern religions as well as in more modern psychological approaches.  Abraham Maslow eventually felt required to add self-transcendence above self-actualization, esteem, love/belonging, safety, physiological in his hierarchy of needs.

Aristotle asserted that the happiness attained by the self-transcending state of eudaemonia may be contrasted with self-enhancing “hedonia,”  which concerns hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure  derived from gratifying short-term desires.  Aristotle understood that we all seek hedonic pleasure, but he warned against the excess of it, stating, “The many, the most vulgar, would seem to conceive the good and happiness as pleasure…Here they appear completely slavish, since the life they decide is a life for grazing animals.”

The American philosopher David Norton asserted that “most of us today have no sense of an oracle within…Turning our backs to the void, we become infinitely distractible by outward things, prizing those that ”demand our attention,  We secretly treasure the atmosphere of world crises, for the mental ambulance-chasing it affords.  Meanwhile we armor ourselves with mirrors to deflect the inquiring eyes of others.”  David Norton passed away in 1995 before smart-phones.  Today, Norton’s sentiments need to be increased by several orders of magnitude.

Dr. Strecher says that if Aristotle were alive today, he might counsel, “Listen to your heart and don’t act like Charlie Sheen.”  HM believes that Aristotle would choose Donald Trump over Charlie Sheen.  Trump has taken narcissism to new levels.  Here is the definition of  the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) “a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of understanding of others’ feelings.[4][5] People affected by it often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or about their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behavior typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of situations.”

HM also finds it amusing to think of Trump as a “grazing animal.”

But there are many people who are eudaemonic.  Pope Francis is one who quickly comes to mind.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.