Archive for March, 2020

Social Intuition

March 31, 2020

The brain of someone who falls at the Puzzled end of the Social Intuition dimension is characterized by low activity in the fusiform gyrus plus high activity in the amygdala. At the opposite extreme, being Socially Intuitive reflects high levels of fusiform activation and low to moderate amygdala activity, giving you the ability to pick up even subtle social signals. While improving Social Intuition requires pumping up fusiform activity and quieting amygdala activity, reducing hyper intuition requires dialing down fusiform activity and ramping up that in your amygdala.

To increase fusiform activity in order to improve Social Intuition, the first step is to pay attention. To detect social cues, particularly subtle one, you need to focus on what is going on around you: tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, This is basically a matter of practice.

Start with strangers. When you are out in public, pick a couple or a small group of friends and discreetly watch them. Pay particular attention to their faces, which communicate so much social information. Remind yourself to look at other people’s faces when you watch them, and particularly, when you interact with them.
See if you can predict how they will touch each other (or not), how close they will walk together, whether they will look into each other’s eyes while speaking.
Get close enough to overhear them (assuming you can manage this unobtrusively; Prof. Davidson recommends giving it a try in a crowded public place such as a party, a packed department store, or a jammed movie-theater lobby). See if their tone of voice seems to match their body language and facial expression.
If not, then you are probably misunderstanding something. Take note of that, and apply this lesson to the next people you observe.
Once you feel confident that you are able to tell what people are feeling, try it with friends or colleagues.

Now practice paying attention to people’s eyes, which provide the truest signals about emotional state. At http://www.paulekman.com, Paul Ekman offers online training in micro expressions, the fleeting facial expressions that punctuate social interaction.

Voice, posture, and body language also convey social and emotional cues. Specific exercises can increase your sensitivity to these other channels of communication.

1. To enhance your sensitivity to vocal cues of emotion, when you are in a public place such as a subway, a coffee shop, a store where friends are chattering away, or an airport terminal, close you eyes and pay attention to the voices around you. Tune in to specific voices; focus not on the content but on the tone of voice.

2. Describe to yourself what that tone conveys—serenity, joy, anticipation, anxiety, stress, whatever. Test yourself by opening your eyes and observing what comes next. An encounter that ends with one party stalking away was more likely characterized by negative emotions than positive ones.

3. Now try that with posture and body language. As you observe a conversation, note how the speakers orient themselves toward one another, how they sit or stand, what gestures they make.

4. Designate one channel—tone of voice, body language—to be your focus of attention for a full day. As you commute, work, and observe family or friends or colleagues, look for opportunities to remove yourself a bit from the situation, even if only for a minute, so that you can be an observer and not a participant. Practice either steps 1 and 2, or 3, depending on which channel you are focusing on.

5. The following day, switch to the other channel and repeat the exercise.

Much more extensive guidance is provided in The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style
How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Love—And How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley.

Resilience

March 30, 2020

If setbacks leave you unable to function for long periods of time, it can prevent you from achieving what you want and can make relationships difficult. Trapped in your own emotional morass, you may neglect family, friends, and work. The brain signature of being Slow to Recover from setbacks is fewer or weaker signals traveling from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, as a result of either low activity in the prefrontal cortex itself or too few or less-functional connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Patients with depression who are Slow to Recover have very weak connectivity there.

Prof. Davidson recommends mindfulness meditation to cultivate greater Resilience. Because it produces emotional balance, mindfulness helps you recover, but not too quickly. Mindfulness weakens the chain of associations that keep us obsessing about and even wallowing in a setback. For example, losing a job might cause your thoughts to tumble from “unemployment” to “no health insurance” to “lose home” to “I can’t go on.” Mindfulness strengthens connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, promoting an equanimity that will help keep you from spiraling down this way. As soon as your thoughts begin to leap from one catastrophe to the next in this chain of grief, you have the mental wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind does this, note that it is an interesting mental process, and resist getting drawn into the abyss. Prof. Davidson recommends starting with a simple form of mindfulness meditation such as the mindfulness of breathing, previously described.

Prof. Davidson writes that if mindfulness practice does not move you as close to the Fast to Recover end of the Resilience dimension as you would like, cognitive reappraisal training may help. This technique is a form of cognitive therapy. It teaches people to reframe adversity in such a way as to believe that it is not as extreme or enduring as it could be. So, if you made a mistake at work and were barraged by distressing thoughts about it, you might think that you are not very smart, that you are likely to make the same kind of mistake again, and the the mistake is career ending. These errors in thinking are what cognitive reappraisal aims to correct. Instead of viewing the mistake as representative of your work, you are trained to realize that it was an anomaly and could have happened to anyone. Instead of thinking the mistake reflects something consistent and fundamental about you, you consider the possibility that you made the mistake because you were having a bad day, or didn’t get enough sleep the night before, or because everyone is fallible. By challenging the accuracy of your thoughts, cognitive reappraisal can help you reframe the causes of your behavior and the distress. This type of cognitive training directly engages the prefrontal cortex, resulting in increased prefrontal inhibition of the amygdala, the pattern that exemplifies resilience.

Should you wish to move toward the Slow to Recover end of the Resilience dimension, perhaps to strengthen you capacity for empathy, then you need to weaken connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. There is very little research on how to do this, but one strategy is to focus intently on whatever negative or pain you are feeling as a result of a setback. This can help sustain the emotion, at least for a time, and increase activation of your amygdala. You can also focus on the pain of someone who is suffering, perhaps describing it in writing: Nothing goes right for Aaron. HIs ex-girlfriend is using his credit card, his security job is in jeopardy because he got caught in an Internet sting, and his landlord is threatening. Use these descriptions to focus on the particular pain or suffering that you might feel in response. This exercise is likely to result in more sustained activation of the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, and amygdala, the circuitry that is involved in pain and distress.

Prof. Davidson also offers meditation from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition called tonglen, which means “taking and receiving.” Designed to cultivate compassion, it involves visualizing another person who might be suffering, taking in her suffering, and transforming it into compassion, and it is very effective at increasing empathy. To get started, try this exercise for five to ten minutes, four or five times a week.

Visualize as vividly as you can someone who is suffering. It can be a friend or a relative who is ill, a colleague who is struggling at work, a neighbor whose marriage is ending. The closer the person is to you, the stronger and clearer the visualization will be. (If you re so fortunate as not to know someone who is suffering, try to visualize a generic person, such as a garbage kicker in Delhi, a starving child in Sudan, a cancer patient in a hospice).
On each inhalation, imagine that you take in this person’ suffering. Feel it viscerally: As you breathe in, imagine her pain and anguish passing through your nostrils, up your nose, and down into your lungs. If it is too difficult to imagine physically taking in her suffering, then imagine the suffering leaving her each time you inhale. As you breathe in, conjure an image of pain and anguish leaving her body like fog dissipating under a bright sun.
On each exhalation, imagine that her suffering is transformed into compassion. Direct this compassion toward her: As you exhale, imagine the breath flowing toward her, a gift of empathy and love that will envelop and enter her, assuaging her pain.

Much more extensive guidance is provided in The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style:
How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley.

Attention

March 29, 2020

The focused extreme of the Attention dimension is the result of enhanced activation in brain regions, including the prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex, that constitute a circuit for selective attention. The prefrontal cortex is critical for maintaining attention, while the parietal cortex acts as the brain’s steering wheel, pointing attention to particular places and thereby focusing attention on a specific target. At the unfocused extreme, the prefrontal cortex is underachieving and attention is stimulus driven: Whatever occurs around you draws your attention. You veer from one stimulus to the next with no internal rudder to guide your attention. Improving focus requires increasing activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortices.

To improve focus he recommends mindfulness meditation. Follow the instructions in the Self-Awareness section for mindful breathing. Once you feel comfortable you can move on to focused-attention meditation, which is also known as one-pointed concentration.

In a quiet room free of distractions, sit (or recline with your eyes open. Find a small object such as a coin, a button on your shirt, or an eyelet on your shoe. It is important that the object of attention be visual, rather than your breath, your body image, or other mental objects.
Focus all your attention upon this one object. Keep your eyes trained on it.
If your attention wanders, calmly try to bring it back to that object.

Do this daily, initially for about ten minutes. If you find that you are able to maintain your focus most of that time, increase your practice about ten minutes per month, until you reach one hour.

If you feel your attention is excessively focused and wish to broaden it in order to take in more of the world, then open-monitoring or open-presence meditation can nudge you toward that end of the Attention dimension. In open-monitoring meditation, your attention is not fixed on any particular object. Instead, you cultivate an awareness itself. He recommends beginning with a focused-attention meditation practice such as breath meditation, which will give you a basic level of attentional stability and make open-monitoring meditation easier. The basics are:

Sit in a quiet room on a comfortable chair, with your back straight but the rest of your body relaxed. Keep you eyes open or closed whichever you find more comfortable. If your eyes are open, gaze downward and keep your eyes somewhat unfocused.
Maintain a clear awareness of and openness to your surroundings. Keep your mind calm and relaxed, not focused on anything specific, yet totally present, clear, vivid, and transparent.
Lightly attend to whatever object happens to rise to the top of your consciousness, but do not latch on to it. You want to observe the thinking process itself, perhaps saying to yourself, Oh, I notice the the first thing I am thinking of as I sit down to meditate is…
Give your full attention to the most salient current object of consciousness focusing on it to the exclusion of everything else but without thinking about it. That is, you are simply aware of it, observing it as disinterestedly as possible, but do not explore it intellectually. Think of an object of attention as if if were an image in a frame in a museum, or in a movie, with no strong relevance to you.
Generate a state of total openness, in which the mind is as vast as the sky, able to welcome and absorb any stray thought, feeling or sensation like a new star that begins shining. When thoughts arise, simply let them pass through your mind without leaving any trace in it. When you perceive noises, images, tastes, or other sensations, let them be as they are, without engaging with them or rejecting them. Tell yourself that they can’t affect the serene equanimity of you mind.
If you notice your mind moving toward another thought or feeling, let it do so, allowing the newcomer to slip into consciousness. Unlike Attention-strengthening forms of meditation, you do not try to shoo away the “intruding” thought, but allow your mind to turn to it. The key difference from the breath-focused meditation described previously is the in open-monitoring meditation were is no single focus to which the attention is redirected if it wanders. Rather, you simply become aware of whatever is in the center of attention at any moment.
Turn to this new object of attention as you did the first.
Do this of five to ten minutes.

In a study done by Prof. Richardson’s group using EEG found that when people practice open-monitoring meditation it modulates their brain waves in a way that makes them more receptive to outside stimuli—that is, they experience phase-locking, a signature of Focused Attention

Much more extensive guidance is provided in The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style
How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley.

Self Awareness

March 28, 2020

Prof Davidson writes, individuals with high levels of Self-Awareness (emotional or physical) have greater activation in their insula while those with little Self-Awareness have decreased activation. Ultrahigh levels of insula activity seem to be associated with the hyperawareness of every little change in heart rate or respiration that sometimes occurs in panic disorder. To move toward the Self-Aware end of this dimension you need to increase insula activation; to dial it back, you need to decrease it.

As a result of research on panic disorder we know something about how to decrease insula activity that makes us too Self-Aware. The best-validated treatment for panic disorder is cognitive-behavioral therapy. Here patients learn to reframe or reappraise the significance of internal bodily cues. So if you experience chest pain or another sensation that you interpret as a danger signal, tell yourself you have many sensations that are perfectly innocuous, and in all likelihood this one is, too. This kind of cognitive reframing, by reducing insula activity, often reduces panic symptoms substantially.

An alternative is to decrease the rest of the brain’s reactivity to the insula’s signals. The idea is to alter your relationship to your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations so that you do not become entangled into an endless, self-reinforcing loop (heart skips a beat; I’m having a heart attack; heart rate spikes, repeat) and leap to the conclusion that some aspect of what you are feeling foretells doom. The trick is to keep your mind from ruminating in response to these internal cues. Rather than target the excessive Self-Awareness that comes from the insula, the idea is to reduce activity in the amygdala and the orbital frontal cortex, which form a circuit that assigns emotional value to thoughts and sensations. By reducing this circuit’s activity, the brain can start perceiving thoughts, emotions, and sensations less judgmentally and less hysterically, so that we are not hijacked by our internal chatter. You’re still very Self-Aware, but it’s not debilitating.

One of the most effective ways of reducing activation in the amygdala and orbital frontal cortex is through mindfulness meditation. In this form of mental training, you practice observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations moment by moment and nonjudgmentally, viewing them simply as what they are: thoughts, feelings, sensations; nothing more and nothing less.

Prof. Davidson writes that the best mindfulness instruction he knows comes in a course of mindfulness-based stress reduction. You can find courses by checking out the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness Web site at
http://www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx”id=4152.

Should you want to give mindfulness meditation a try before taking a formal course, you can begin on your own with awareness of breathing.

1.Choose a time of day when you are the most awake and alert. Sit upright on the floor or a chair, keeping the spine straight and maintaining a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy (HM has found that the reason for this erect posture is to keep you from getting drowsy. HM has had many hundreds, if not thousands of hours of meditation in a reclining position in which he did not fall asleep.)

2. Now focus on your breathing, on the sensations it triggers throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves with each inhalation and exhalation.

3. Focus on the tip of the nose, noticing the different sensations that arise with each breath.

4. When you notice that you have been distracted by unrelated thoughts or feelings that have arisen, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Much more extensive guidance is provided in The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style
How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley.

Outlook

March 27, 2020

One way to strengthen connections between the prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum is the technique developed by Giovanni Fava, of the University of Bologna in Italy. It is called well-being therapy and is designed to enhance the components of well-being—autonomy, environmental mastery, positive interpersonal relationships, personal growth, purpose in life, and self-acceptance—well being therapy has been shown to move people toward the Positive end of the Outlook dimension, enabling them to sustain positive emotions. Although before-and-after brain scans have not been done, from everything we know about the brain circuitry underlying these components it’s a good bet that well-being therapy strengthens the prefrontal cortex and its connections with the ventral striatum.

Every day for a week, do these three exercises:

Write down one positive characteristic of your self and one positive characteristic of someone you regularly interact with. Do this three times a day. Ideally, you’ll write down a different trait each time, but if you’re stuck on how “helpful” your office colleague is, that’s okay.
Express gratitude regularly. Pay attention to times you say “thank you.” When you do, look directly into the eyes of the person you are thanking and muster as much genuine gratitude as you can. Keep a journal; at the end of the day, note the specific times you felt a genuine, even if brief, connection with another person during the act of expressing gratitude.
Complement others regularly. Keep an eye out for opportunities to do so, such as a job well done at work, a beautiful garden a neighbor created, or even a stranger’s gorgeous coat. Look directly into the eyes of the person you are complementing. In your journal, note the specific times you felt a genuine connection with someone you complemented.

After a week of this, spend a little time reflecting on what changes you noticed in your Outlook style. In all likelihood, you will find that positive emotions stick around a little longer and that your sense of optimism and possibility swells. Just as with physical exercise, you’ll probably need to find a practical maintenance routine. Once your Outlook has become as Positive or Negative as you wanted, it is important to sustain a level of exercise that is sufficient to maintain your set point in an optimal zone for you.

If your goal is to shift toward the Negative end of the dimension, then your goal is to lower activity in the nucleus accumbens or ventral striatum, or both, or weaken connections between them. If you feel that you are too Pollyanish, carrying a Positive Outlook to unrealistic extremes, then you should envision potential negative outcomes. If considering an expensive purchase, spend time reflecting on the possible negative outcomes of that choice. If you are tempted to buy a new car even though your current one runs fine, write down all the things that might go wrong with it or detract from its allure: the fact that its value drops by thousands of dollars as soon as you drive it off the dealer’s lot: how much more careful you will feel you need to be while driving or parking so you do not get even a tiny scratch on it (something you have stopped worry about with your current car); how the monthly payments will force you to curtail spending on other things you enjoy.

These are just some suggestions as to the kind of negative thoughts you need to generate.

Much more extensive guidance is provided in The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style
How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley.

Changing Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind

March 27, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The title of this post is similar to the title of the last section of the book, How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.

We can change where we sit on each of the dimensions of emotional style. Fortunately, emotional styles vary across individuals or the world would be a very boring place indeed. However, should you want to change your current location on one or more of the dimensions of emotional style you can do so. Moreover, you can adapt your emotional style for different occasions, say work or home. The next posts will address techniques for modifying each of the dimensions:
Outlook
Self-Awareness
Attention
Resilience
Social Intuition
Sensitivity to Context

You will also see how you are actually changing your brain by transforming your mind.
There will be a separate post for each dimension. Understand that there is no requirement to do these techniques. But the option is provided so you have the avenue to explore.

Also understand that the guidance and instructions provided in Davidson and Begley is much more extensive.

Compassion Meditation

March 26, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.

In 2007 Prof. Richardson’s group recruited forty-one volunteers for a study that would teach a technique to improve well-being. Volunteers were randomly divided into two groups: a compassion meditation group and a cognitive reappraisal group. The compassion meditation group was told to begin by visualizing a loved one—specifically, a loved one at a time in her life when she was suffering. With this image clearly in mind, they next concentrated on the wish that her suffering end, silently repeating a phrase such as “May you be free from suffering; may you experience joy and ease” to help them focus on the task. They were to try to feel the compassion emotionally and not to simply think about it cognitively. After doing this for a loved one, to expand the circle of compassion little by little, to yourself, then to someone you recognize but do not really know, then perhaps a neighbor or a person who works in the same building as you but whose life you know little or nothing about, then to a difficult person (someone who pushes your buttons and makes you angry), and finally to all of humankind. Using an online instructional program, this group practiced compassion meditation thirty minutes a day for two weeks.

Participants in the cognitive reappraisal group also began by visualizing the suffering of someone they love but were told to “reframe” the suffering. Reframing is a technique in which you adopt different beliefs about the causes of your behavior or of the circumstances of your life. In this case, you see that suffering might not be as extreme as other forms of suffering and that it could end up okay, or you focus on the fact that there are huge differences in the magnitude and severity of adversity. They were further taught to not attribute negative things to stable qualities in themselves but to see that suffering can occur as a result of external circumstances. For instance, the reason someone might be unable to find a life partner is not because of anything inherent in himself, but because his work keeps him from getting out and meeting people—the latter being something we can control and that we can change. The cognitive reappraisal group also received their instruction online, also for thirty minutes a day for two weeks.

Before the training began brain scans were performed of all participants. While a participant was lying in the MRI tube, pictures of human suffering were presented, such as a child who had been badly burned or a family in a horrific car crash. The researchers focused on the amygdala, which is known to be involved in feelings of distress. Perhaps counterintuitively, they predicted that after compassion training, this region would not be as active in response to images of suffering. The reason is that activity in the amygdala is associated with distress. Feeling distress interferes with the desire to help—the hallmark of compassion—because if you are in pain yourself, you have little reserve for others’ pain. In addition, they predicted that the prefrontal cortex would become more activated because, as the site of higher-order cognitive functions, it holds within its intricate circuitry the neuronal representation of the goals of compassion training—to alleviate suffering in others.

At the end of the two weeks of training, they again recorded brain activity with the fMRI while the volunteers looked at images of suffering. Those who had undergone training in compassion meditation showed striking changes in brain function, particularly in the amygdala: Participants in the compassion group tended to show less activation there in response to the images of suffering after the compassion-meditation training than they did before training. Might this be a habituation effect, a lab version of “compassion fatigue” people feel when they see one human tragedy after another? Not according to the control group, the people who underwent training in cognitive appraisal, amygdala activity in response to images of suffering was just as high as before their training.

The decrease in amygdala activation after compassion training had real-world effects, also. After their two weeks of training, each participant played an economic decision-making game designed to measure altruistic behavior. One might expect that someone who is not feeling much distress—as shown by low amygdala activity—in response to someone else’s “suffering” would not be moved to alleviate that suffering. But the opposite was the case. Participants who had undergone training in compassion meditation, and whose amygdala acuity in response to images of suffering had decreased, were more more like to fork over some money. On average, these folks forked over 38% more money that those who had undergone cognitive reappraisal training.

The conclusions regarding compassion meditation were:
it nudged practitioners toward the Positive end of the Outlook dimension
it strengthened connections between the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions important for empathy
Compassion meditation also likely facilitates Social Intuition.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

March 25, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them. There have been previous posts on mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), which can be searched for in the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com.

MBSR was developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn who learned meditation from a Zen missionary. Prof. Davidson writes, “MBSR is the most widely taught secular form of meditation in academic medical centers throughout North America and Europe. Developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, the eight-week course teaches people to engage in mindfulness, the form of meditation in which you practice nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness. Let HM take the three parts of that description in reverse order. By “awareness,” I mean that while sitting in a quiet place, you focus on whatever sensations your body is experiencing or whatever thoughts and emotions you mind is generating. You might start by feeling the pressure of the chair. Or the tension in your legs. Or how your elbow feels compared with your shoulder. Then you might move on to notice that as you conduct the mental inventory of your physical sensations, a thought about what to make for lunch pops into your mind. Or you notice that your brain feels suddenly quiet. The ‘moment-to-moment’ part describe how you take each sensation or thought as it comes. Finally, the ‘nonjudgmental’ part is key. If your legs feel tense, you do not scold yourself for having difficulty relaxing; your reaction is closer to ‘Huh, tense legs; interesting.’ Similarly, for any thoughts and emotions, you do not intentionally pursue a thought as you ordinarily might (Hmmm, lunch. I need to buy more mayo. Maybe I should have just a salad. I really need to eat less. Why am I thinking about this when I should be meditating? I’ll never get this.) If those thoughts arise, you observe them disinterestedly, as if from the perspective of a dispassionate observer, but do not take them to heart. They’re just the interesting exudations of your brain’s synapses and action potentials.”

By 2011, dozens of clinical trials had shown that MBSR can relieve psychological distress in breast cancer survivors, reduce side effects in organ-transplant recipients, relieve anxiety and depression in people with social anxiety disorder, and help people cope with chronic pain.

Prof. Davidson solicited volunteers, some of whom would learn a technique of stress reduction that was derived from Buddhist meditation, and some would be placed in a ‘wait-list’ control group,which meant undergoing the same assessments as their coworkers learning stress reduction, but not actually taking the classes. Which group some wound up in would be totally random. After the study was over, people in the wait-list control group would be given the opportunity to learn MBSR. The course consisted of one two-and-a-half session each week for eight weeks.

Before the first class baseline data was gathered on all the participants. Brain electrical activity was measured with EEG, focusing on the prefrontal cortex because that’s where left-right asymmetry is associated with positive or negative emotions and greater or lesser Resilience. Questionnaires were also administered that assessed how much anxiety and stress people felt, by asking them whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I worry too much over trivial things” and “I often have disturbing thoughts.”

Anxiety symptoms fell about 12% among the people who took the MSBR class but increased slightly among the wait-list control group. The MSBR group also shows a significant shift toward greater left-side frontal activation: Compared with what it had been before the course, the level of left-side activation had tripled after four months. The control group had less left-side activation at the end of the study than they had at the start. Blood samples showed that meditators produced 5% higher levels of antibodies to a flu vaccine, an indication that their immune systems responded more effectively than those of the control group. Participants who showed a large brain response to MBSR also showed a larger response to the flu vaccine. Prof. Davidson believes that positive emotions (being Fast to Recover end of the Resilience style and he Positive end of the Outlook style) boost the immune system, among other beneficial effects on bodily health.

Prof. Davidson writes, “We all have habitual ways of responding to emotional challenges, and these habits are complicated products of genetics and experience. Mindfulness training alters these habits by making it more likely that one neuronal pathway rather than another will be used. If the habitual response to a setback had been for neuronal signals to travel from the frontal cortex, which figures out the meaning of the experience, to the limbic system, where the amygdala attached an intense negative emotional valence to that experience, then mindfulness can create a different neuronal pathway. The same experience is still processed by the frontal cortex, but the signals do not reach the amygdala (or at least fewer of them do). Instead, they peter out, like a bad mood evaporating during a day when everything seems to go right, The result is that what had been a stressful experience or setback no longer triggers a feeling of anxiety, fear, or fatalistic capitulations. The habitual path traveled by neuronal signals has changed—much as water that had always followed one path along a stream can be diverted to a different course after a sudden storm, for instance, carving a new channel. Mindfulness meditation carves new channels in the stream beds of the mind.

More specifically, mindfulness trains the brain in new forms of responding to experience and thoughts. Whereas the thought of how much you need to accomplish tomorrow (driving children to school; going to an important meeting for work, etc.,) used to trigger a panicky sense of being overwhelmed, mindfulness sends thought through a new culvert. You still think about all you have to do, but when the sense of being overwhelmed kicks in, you regard that thought with dispassion.)

Physical and psychological benefits can be found with other types of meditation. The relaxation response provides the easiest means of getting into meditation and has significant benefits by itself. Enter “relaxation response” into the search block of the healthy memory blog. The post “An Update of the Relaxation Response” documents the many benefits of this type of meditation.

More on Neuroplasticity

March 24, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.

Pascal-Leone says, “Plasticity is an intrinsic property of the human brain. The potential of the adult brain to ‘reprogram’ itself might be much greater than has previously been assumed. This is what he and his colleagues concluded in 2005. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to break the bonds of its own genome, which dictates that one region of the brain will “see” and another will “hear,” that one spot on the somatosensory cortex will feel the right thumb and another the left elbow. Although this genetically guided blueprint is fine for most people under most conditions, but not for all of us all the time like when we lose our sight or suffer a stroke, or when we dedicate ourselves to mastering the violin. Nature has endowed the human brain with a malleability and flexibility that lets it adapt to the demands of the world if finds itself in. The brain is neither immutable nor static but continuously remodeled by the lives we live.

The brain can change the function of particular structures in response to the sensory and motor demands placed on it. Intense motor training induces the brains of stroke patients to reorganize in a way that allows healthy regions to substitute for disabled ones; intense musical practice expands regions responsible for the sensitivity of fingering digits. The absence of visual signals induces the visual cortex to process sounds or touch instead. In these cases the cause has been external to the brain—sensory or motor signals arriving with greater intensity (violinists, stroke patients in rehab) or not at all (the blind and the deaf).

The next post discusses signals that come from the brain itself? That is, its own thoughts.

Emotional Style and Physical Health

March 23, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Live—And How You Can Change Them. The research to be discussed is quite complex and would take many pages to describe accurately. So a top level review will be provided to understand the important relationship between emotional style and physical health. A reading of the referenced text is needed for the complete characterization.

The research involve 20 undergraduates who had participated in earlier studies who had been found to have dramatically lopsided frontal activity, either extreme left-sided prefrontal activation or extreme right-sided prefrontal activation. Blood samples were taken and analyzed for natural killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell that constitutes a major component of our innate immune system. They attack tumors and kill tumor killing cells that have been infected by viruses. The frontal asymmetry pattern that characterizes a more positive emotional style—left frontal activation—was associated with higher NK cell activity. Participants with high left frontal activation had upwards of 50% higher activity than those with high right frontal activation. Since twenty is a daily small number of participants, this study was repeated several years later, with essentially the same results: greater left frontal activity brings greater NK cell activity.

Another study examined whether there was an association between prefrontal activity and the immune response to a vaccine. The findings indicated that people with great left-frontal activation, associated with a more positive emotional style, had the strongest immune response. The antibody levels of the most extreme left-siders averaged four times that of the most extreme right-siders. The greater the antibody level, the less likely the chance of catching the flu.

A study on the heart-brain connection. This study employed a “threat of shock” procedure. Participants were put into a MRI tube and had simple geometric shapes projected on the ceiling. One shape meant that they might receive an electric shock, while the other meant that all would be well. A mild shock was administer for 20 milliseconds, which felt like the zap you experience if you’ve ever touched a fully charged nine-volt battery with your tongue.

There were large differences in the pattern of activation when people saw the “shock alert” symbol compared with the “don’t worry” symbol. As the heart readings came in—contractility, or the strength with which the heart beats, it could be seen that, at least for some participants, emotions reached down into the chest and wreaked havoc. Contractility is influenced by the sympathetic nervous system, which is the key constituent of the fight-or-flight response and has been implicated in stress and distress. The stronger the brain activation in three key regions—a sector of the right prefrontal cortex, the insula, and the amygdala-the stronger the cardiac contractility. In response to the threat cue, some people had little change in their contractility while others had a dramatic change. More than 40% of the person-to-person variation in cardiac contractility was accounted for by how strongly the insula and the prefrontal cortex responded to the shape that was the harbinger of threat. This heightened brain activity was racing down the highways of the sympathetic nervous system making the heart pump harder. Prof. Davidson concludes “such changes in emotional style are likely to be consequential for health when they are played out over a long period of time.”

Prof. Davidson continues, “The brain circuits that underlie Emotional Styles have extensive two-way connections with the immune system, the endocrine system, and the autonomic nervous system. Through traffic in one direction, from brain to body, the mind influences our health. This suggests that knowing someone’s Emotional Style may be as important to a health-care provider, in terms of assessing health risks, as knowing whether the patient smokes, and that altering your Emotional Style can be beneficial to physiological systems and thus overall health. Through traffic in the other direction, from body to brain, changes in our patterns of movement can affect how our mind processes emotional information. That has implications beyond warning Botox users that paralyzing some of their facial muscles runs the risk of limiting their emotional range. It also suggests that the body can become an ally in transforming emotion, meaning practices that emphasize the body, such as hatha yoga, have the potential to modulate emotion. This research is barely off the ground, but there are tantalizing hints about how this body-to-brain connection might work.”

Mind Over Matter

March 22, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The title of this post is identical to the heading in an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley. The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.

Brain-imaging studies show that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by activity in two regions: the orbital frontal cortex, whose main function is to notice when something is amiss; and the striatum, which received input from the orbital frontal cortex as well as the amygdala. Together the orbital frontal cortex and striatum form what is called the worry circuit. In people with OCD it is buzzing with activity.

Rather than just drugging his patients (antidepressants including Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft), neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz got the idea of using a technique he employed in his own Buddhist meditation practice. Called mindfulness, or mindful awareness, it involves observing your own thoughts and feelings from the perspective of a nonjudgmental third party. In The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, the Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera described it as attending “just to the bare facts of a perception as presented either through the five physical senses or through the mind…without reacting to them by deep, speech or by mental comment.” In the case of his OCD patients, mindfulness meant learning to experience an OCD symptom without reacting emotionally, and learning to realize that the feeling that something is amiss is just the manifestation of overactivity in the OCD circuit. A patient would think, My OCD circuit is producing another obsessive thought. I know it is not real but just static from a faulty circuit. After mainly hours learning this technique, patients were better able to resist OCD messages, reporting that their disease no longer controlled them. Neuroimaging also showed that activity in the orbital frontal cortex, the core of the OCD circuit, had fallen dramatically compared with what it had been before mindfulness-based therapy. Thinking about their thoughts in a new way had altered patterns of brain activity.

Prof. Richardson writes, “This finding is crucial to my belief that we can similarly alter the patterns of brain activity underlying Emotional Style, so let me offer one more example of how mental training can accomplish this. Clinical depression is characterized by overactivity in specific regions of the frontal cortex, the seat of reasoning, logic, analysis, and higher thought, in particular regions associated with anticipation—perhaps the cause of the endless rumination that grips people suffering from depression. There is, in addition, often under activity in parts of the limbic system (the brain’s emotion center) associated with reward and pleasure. That would seem odd if you thought of depression as being marked primarily by an overwhelming sense of sadness, which presumably would show up as heightened activity in the limbic system. In fact, however, people with depression report that they experience what’s called flat affect—an inability to experience soaring flights of joy, certain, but also the absence of feelings such as curiosity or interest in the world.”

In the 1960s cognitive-behavior therapy use a form of mental training that focuses on teaching patients to respond to their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in a healthy way and to reappraise dysfunctional thinking.

Scientists at the University of Toronto found that cognitive-behavior therapy has a powerful effect on the brain activity underlying depression. The therapy reduced activity in the frontal cortex and raised activity in the limbic system. Patients ruminated less and no longer felt emotionally dead inside. Their depression lifted, and in most cases stayed lifted: Rates of relapse with cognitive-behavior therapy are much lower than with medication, which in any case seems to be more effective than a placebo for anything but the most severe depression.

Prof. Davidson concludes this section as follows: “In short, the revolution in neuroplasticity has shown that the brain can change as a result of two distinct inputs. It can change as a result of the experiences we have in the world—how we move and behave and what sensory signals arrive in our cortex. The brain can also change in response to purely mental activity, ranging from meditation to cognitive-behavior therapy, with the result that activity in specific circuits can increase or decrease.”

Can Emotional Style Change?

March 21, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them. The immediately preceding post ended “The brain signatures of each dimension of Emotional Style seem so fundamental to our being, it’s easy to assume they are innate, as characteristic of a person as his fingerprints or eye color, and equally unlikely to change.”

This assumption will be examined in the subsequent post.
Here is that examination. The nature nurture debate has a long history. The debate concerned how much of a person’s life is determined by genes versus experience. The new field of epigenetics should have ended that debate. Critical to the role of genetics is which genes are read out from the genome. If the gene is not read out, the gene cannot be expressed. So what determines whether a gene will be read out? That is determined by nurture, or the experience of the individual. So the nature nurture debate should have ended. As nothing can be ethically be done about nature, all the focus should be on nurture.

There is a wide variety of evidence showing the effects of epigenetic using both human and infra-human subjects. There is a suicide brain bank in Quebec, the Quebec Suicide Brain Bank to be specific. Samples from 36 brains were studied, one-third of which who had suffered abuse in childhood, one-third from suicides who had not been abused, and one-third from non-suicides. Analyzing the human brains the researchers found that , compared with non-suicide brains, the brains of people who had taken their own lives and had suffered child abuse contained significantly more methylation “off” switches on the gene for the glucocorticoid receptor. This was the gene that the research team had discovered was methylated in rats raised by neglectful mothers. When this gene is silenced the stress-response system is on a hair trigger, making it extremely difficult to cope with adversity. Abnormal activity in the stress-response system had long been linked to suicide.

Prof. Richardson writes, “The presence of a methyl group sitting on a piece of DNA is called an epigenetic change. It does not alter the sequence of the gene, denoted by he well-known strings of A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s, but it does alter whether the gene will be expressed. And it may explain puzzles like the low concordance for schizophrenia between identical twins. At birth, identical twins are very similar epigenetically; if a particular gene is silence in one twin, it is usually silenced in the other. But as we go through life, it turns out, we accumulate epigenetic changes. Either through random chance or because of experiences we have—something akin to being nurtured by a parent, perhaps, but almost certainly many others that reach down into our very DNA—our genes take on more and more epigenetic marks, silencing some genes that had previously spoken and lifting the gag order that others may had been under.”

Prof. Richardson cites research on the emotional development of children that reinforces this point.

The Attentive Brain

March 20, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them. Prof. Davidson writes, “It is nothing short of miraculous that we can focus attention at all, given the profusion of information that enters the brain every moment, to say nothing of the countless thoughts that pop into consciousness. Our ability to focus even some of the time is a monumental triumph of attention, allowing us to select some external or internal objects for conscious awareness and ignore the rest.”

We have two related mechanisms for focusing attention. One is to enhance the strength of signals in the attended channel: that is, we can increase the strength of the visual signals carrying the image of the characters we are reading relative to the strength of the visual signals carrying the images of , say, our hands holding this iPad. The second mechanism is to inhibit the signals in the ignored channels. We use both strategies. When trying to converse with a companion in a noisy restaurant, we turn up the internal volume of his voice while simultaneously inhibiting sounds from the surrounding tables. Infants have a capacity for selective attention, being able to focus on their mothers’s faces and ignore distractions from other sensory sources.

Prof. Davidson writes, “Two forms of attention are relevant to Emotional Style: selective attention and open, nonjudgmental awareness. Selective attention refers to the conscious decision to selectively focus on certain features of the environment and ignore others. This capacity is a key building block for other dimensions of Emotional Style, since the failure to selectively attend can make it impossible to be Self-Aware or Tuned In. Open, nonjudgmental awareness reflects the ability to take in signals from the external environment as well as the thoughts and feelings popping up within our brain, to broaden our attention and sensitively pick up on the often subtle cues that continuously impinge upon us—but to do so without getting stuck on any one stimulus to the detriment of others.”

There is a test to assess Emotional Style with respect to selective attention and open, nonjudgmental awareness called the Tellegen questionnaire. At the Focused extreme of the Attention dimension, the prefrontal cortex exhibits strong phase-locking in response to external stimuli. At the unfocused extreme the prefrontal cortex shows little phase locking.

Prof. Davidson writes, “Emotion works with cognition in an integrated and seamless way to enable us to navigate the world of relationships, work, and spiritual growth. When positive emotion energizes us, we are better able to concentrate, to figure out the social networks of a new job or new school, to broaden out thinking so we can creatively integrate diverse information and to sustain our interest in a task so we can persevere. In these cases cases emotion is neither interrupting nor disrupting us; it is facilitating. A feeling permeates virtually everything we do. No wonder, then, that circuits in the brain that control and regulate emotions overlap with those involved injunctions we think of as purely cognitive. There is no clear, distinct dividing line between emotion and other mental processes; they blur into each other. As a result, virtually all brain regions play a role in or are affected by emotion, even down to the visual and auditory cortices.

These facts about the neural organization of emotion have important implications for understanding why our perceptions and thoughts are altered when we experience emotions. They also help to explain how we can use our cognitive machinery to intentionally regulate and transform our emotions as we shall soon see. But they raised a question. The brain signatures of each dimension of Emotional Style seem so fundamental to our being, it’s easy to assume they are innate, as characteristic of a person as his fingerprints or eye color, and equally unlikely to change.”

This assumption will be examined in the subsequent post.

The Outlook Brain

March 19, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.

It was discovered in 1982 that greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex underlies positive emotions, while greater activity in the right prefrontal cortex is associated with negative emotions. Early research was spent trying to identify the specific aspects of positive emotion that are lacking in people suffering from depression. Depressed people have little drive to accomplish goals. Sometimes they do not even notice, let alone perk up, when they encounter something novel, the way other people notice a new batch of flowers in a neighbor’s yard or a new coffee bar that just opened down the street. They also lack persistence. Many depressed people are aware that they have plans and to-do lists, but they lack the tenacity required to carry them out.

Depressed people do respond positively to humorous film clips. They report as much positive emotion in response to these clips as non depressed participants, so they are able to experience joy. They key difference between depressed and healthy people is how well they can sustain positive emotion, as opposed to how much they feel. So they feel the positive emotion but do not sustain it.

Prof Richardson and his staff conducted a study with twenty-seven people suffering from clinical depression and nineteen healthy volunteers. The goal was to measure brain activity while people looked at emotionally evocative pictures projected onto the ceiling of an MRI tube. All the pictures depicted something joyous, or at least something designed to bring a faint smile to the lips—children playing and clearly enjoying themselves, adults dancing, people eating food that looked good enough to make a mere observer salivate.

For each image the volunteers got one of two instructions: either to simply view the pictures as they normally would, with no attempt to modify their emotional response, or to try to enhance and sustain the positive emotion the picture induced for as long as possible (or up to 20 seconds) after the image vanished from the screen.

A clear pattern emerged from the data on all volunteers, depressed and healthy. When the volunteers first saw the pictures depicting happy situations, activation in what we think of as the brain’s reward circuit shot up. This circuit is centered on a region in the ventral striatum, which is located below the cortical surface in the middle of the brain and has been shown in other studies to become active when people anticipate receiving rewarding or pleasurable stimuli. What becomes active during such experiences is a cluster of neurons within the ventral striatum called the nucleus accumbens, a region critical for motivation and generating a sense of reward. It also happens to be packed with neurons that either release or capture the neurotransmitter dopamine, which plays a role in positive emotion, motivation, and desire; and endogenous opiates, which provide the famous runner’s high. Levels of activity in the nucleus accumbens were similar in depressed and non depressed volunteers looking at the smile-inducing pictures. Everyone was able to feel an initial uptick of sympathetic joy, but this did not last. Although healthy people were able to maintain an emotional high for the entire session, in depressed patients the positive feeling evaporated within minutes.

Prof. Davidson concludes, “These findings indicate that activity in the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex underly the ability to sustain positive emotion. The greater the activity in the nucleus accumbens—activity sustained by signals from the prefrontal cortex—the further toward the Positive end of the Outlook dimension on which someone falls. Lower activity in this region underlies a Negative outlook.

The Brain Basis of Emotional Style

March 18, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) has revealed that the more white matter (axons that connect one neuron to another) lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the more resilient that person is. Signals from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, and from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex determine how quickly the brain will recover from upsetting evidence. But we know that the brain is fully able to increase connections between regions. In later posts it will be explained what you can do for these particular prefrontal-to-amygdala connections. It is eminently possible to raise one’s baseline activity in the left prefrontal cortex. How to do so will be explained in subsequent posts. Along the two extremes of the Resilience continuum people who are slow to recover, and are having great difficult bouncing back from adversity, have fewer signals traveling from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala. Those who are fast to recover from adversity and are extremely resilient show strong activation of the left prefrontal cortex in response to setbacks and have strong connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. By damping down the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex is able to quiet signals associated with negative emotions, enabling the brain to plan and active effectively without being distracted by negative emotion, in another words a high degree of resilience.

Timothy was a high-functioning autistic boy. His extremes of being puzzled and having low social intuition reflected clear differences in brain activity and connectivity. Although he was very intelligent and able to understand language and speak, his speech was quite monotonous and lacked the modulations called intonation contours—the stresses and changes in pitch, tone, and pacing that convey emotion. For example, when volume and pitch both increase, you can be pretty sure that your interlocutor is angry. When pace slows, volume decreases, and pitch flattens, the speaker is likely sad. Timothy’s voice sounded like a robot’s. From studies of children, adolescents like Timothy, Prof. Davidson concludes that the lack of social intuition and the resulting failure to grasp what is socially appropriate comes with low levels of activation in the fusiform and high levels of activation in the amygdala.

Oxytocin is a molecule that reduces activation in the amygdala. When oxytocin is spritzed into the noses of people, which allows it to go directly to the brain, it reduces activation in the amygdala. This suggests that quieting the amygdala is the mechanism by which oxytocin induces feelings of commitment and attachment, and quieting the amygdala by other means accomplishes the same ends, including laying the groundwork for the Socially Intuitive brain.

The ability to distinguish a familiar from an unfamiliar context comes from the hippocampus. The hippocampus is famous for its role in processing memories: It seems to act as a holding pen for short-term memories, getting some of them ready for transfer to long-term storage. In a recent study of rhesus monkey, it was found that the anterior hippocampus, the portion closest to the amygdala, is also involved in regulating behavioral inhibition in response to different contexts. People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder often have abnormal hippocampal function. PTSD can be thought of as a disorder of disrupted context. The anxiety and terror that people with PTSD feel is quite appropriate in certain contexts, such as a battleground, but the problem is that they experience these feelings in non traumatic contexts.

Prof Davidson writes, “Differences in the strength of the connections between the hippocampus and other brain regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex, underlie difference in Sensitivity of Context. The hippocampus communicates regularly with the brain’s executive—function areas in the prefrontal cortex. Stronger connections from the hippocampus to these regions increase sensitivity to context, while weaker connections underlie insensitivity to context.

A key region of the brain for self-awareness is the insula, which is located between the temporal and frontal lobes. It contains what is called a viscerotopc map of the body. This means the visceral organs—heart, liver, colon, sexual organs, lungs, stomach, kidneys—are each mapped to a specific spot within the insula The insula serves as the brain’s monitoring station for everything below the neck and within the body. The insula also sends signals to the organs, instructing the heart to beat more quickly or for the lungs to inhale more rapidly. In addition to the insula, the somatosensory cortex is also involved in perceiving internal sensations. Higher insula activation is associated with greater awareness not only of physical sensations but also of emotions.

To summarize, individuals with high level-awareness of Self-Awareness have great activation in the insula, while those with low levels of Self-Awareness have decreased activation.

The Outlook Brain and the Attentive Brain will be discussed in subsequent posts.

The Emotional Life of Your Brain

March 17, 2020

The title of this post is identical the to the title of an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them. Through research Professor Davidson has identified the following six dimensions of emotional style:

*Resilience: how slowly or quickly you recover from adversity.
*Outlook: how long you are able to sustain positive emotion.
*Social Intuition: how adept you are at picking up social signals from the people around you.
*Self-Awareness: how well you perceive bodily feelings that reflect emotions.
*Sensitivity to Context: how good you are at regulating your emotional responses to take into account the context you find yourself in.
*Attention: how sharp and clear your focus is.

One of the standard classification systems in psychology is the “big five” personality traits: openness to new experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Professor Davidson asserts.

*Someone high in openness to new experience has strong Social Intuition. She is also very self-aware and tends to be focused in her attention style.
*A conscientious person has well- developed Social Intuition, a focused style of Attention, and acute Sensitivity to Context.
*An extraverted person bounces back rapidly from adversity and thus is at the Fast to Recover end of the Resilience spectrum. She maintains a positive Outlook.
*An agreeable person has a highly attuned Sensitivity to Context and strong Resilience; he also tends to maintain a positive Outlook.
*Someone high in neuroticism is slow to recover from adversity. He has a gloomy, negative Outlook, is relatively insensitive to context and tends to be unfocused in his Attention style.

Unlike personality, Emotional Style can be traced to a specific, characteristic brain signature. To understand the brain basis of agreeableness, for example, we need to probe more deeply into the Emotional Styles comprising them.

Davidson writes, “While the combinations of Emotional Style that add up to each of the big five personality traits hold true, there will be exceptions. Not everyone with a given personality will have all the dimensions of Emotional Style that I described, but they will invariably have at least one of them.”

*Someone high in openness to new experience has strong Social Intuition. She is also very self-aware and tends to be focused in her Attention style.

*A conscientious person has well-developed Social Intuition, a focused style of Attention, and acute Sensitivity to Context.

*An extraverted person bounces back rapidly from adversity and thus is as the Fast to Recover end of the Resliience spectrum. She maintains a positive Outlook.

*An agreeable person has a highly attuned Sensitivity to Context and strong Resilience; he also tends to maintain a positive Outlook.

*Some one high in neuroticism is slow to recover from adversity. He has a gloomy, negative Outlook, is relatively insensitive to context, and tends to be unfocused in his Attention style.

We can look at traits that all of us think of when we describe ourselves or someone we know well. Each of these can be understood as a combination of different dimensions of Emotional Style.

*Impulsive: a combination of unfocused Attention and low Self-Awareness.

*Patient: a combination of high Self-Awareness and high Sensitivity to context. Knowing that when context changes, other things will change, too, helps to facilitate patience.

*Shy: a combination of being Slow to Recover on the Resilience dimension and having low Sensitivity to Context. As a result of the insensitivity to context, shyness and wariness extend beyond contexts in which they might be normal.

*Anxious: combination of being Slow to Recover, having a negative Outlook, having high levels of Self-Awareness, and being unfocused (Attention).

*Optimistic: a combination of being Fast to Recover and having a positive Outlook.

*Chronically unhappy: a combination of being Slow to Recover and having a negative Outlook, with the result that a person cannot sustain positive emotions and become mired in negative ones after setbacks.

In 1992 Davidson made two promises to the Dalai Lama: he would personally study meditation, and would try to make research on positive emotions, such as compassion and well-being, a central focus of psychology as research on negative emotions had long been.

Davidson writes, “My research on meditators has shown that mental training can alter patterns of activity in the brain to strengthen empathy, compassion, optimism, and a sense of well-being—the culmination of my promise to study meditation as well as positive emotions. And my research in the mainstream of affective neuroscience has shown that it is these sites of higher-order reasoning that hold the key to altering set patterns of brain activity.”

The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style

March 16, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.”The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them. It is important to understand that there is no average emotional style. Nor should one say that there is a preferred emotional style. Different emotional styles exist for different people. Of course, it is possible that someone might not like their emotional style, in which case they can change them, and this book will tell you how. In this post the different styles will be discussed so you can identify your emotional styles.

Your Resilience style: When you suffer a setback, do you usually shake it off easily, or do you suffer a meltdown? When faced with an emotional or other challenge, can you muster the determination to continue on, or do you feel helpless and simply surrender. Should you have an argument with your significant other, does it cast a pall over the remainder of the day, or are you able to recover quickly and put it behind you? Do respond to setbacks with energy and determination, or do you give up? People at one extreme of this dimension are Fast to Recover from adversity; those at the other extreme are slow to recover, crippled by adversity.

Your Outlook style: Do you seldom let emotional clouds darken your sunny outlook on life? Do you maintain a high level of energy and engagement even when things don’t go your way? Or do you tend toward cynicism and pessimism, struggling to see anything positive? People at one extreme of the Outlook spectrum can be described as Positive types; those on the other as Negative.

Your Social Intuition style: Can you read people’s body language and tone of voice like a book, inferring whether they want to talk or be alone, whether they are stressed o the breaking point or feeling mellow? Or are you puzzled by or blind to the outward indications of people’s mental and emotional states? Those at one extreme on this spectrum are Socially Intuitive types; those at the other end, Puzzled.

Your Self-Awareness style: Are you aware of your own thoughts and feelings and attuned to the messages your body sends you? Or do you act and react without knowing whey you do what you do, because you ask why you eve engage in introspection and wonder why you seem oblivious to the fact that you are anxious, jealous, impatient, or threatened? At one extreme of this spectrum are people who are Self-Aware; at the other, people who are Self-Opaque.

Your Sensitivity to Context style: Are you able to pick up the conventional rules of social interaction so that you do not tell your boss the same dirty joke you told your husband or try to pick up a date at a funeral? Or are you baffled when people tell you that your behavior is inappropriate? If you are at one extreme of the Sensitivity to Context style, you are Tuned In; at the other end, Tuned Out.

Your Attention style: Can you screen out emotional or other distractions and stay focused? Are you so caught up in your video game that you don’t notice the dog crying to go out, until he makes a mess on the floor? Or do your thoughts flit from the task at hand to the fight you had with your spouse this morning or the anxiety you feel about an upcoming presentation for work? At one extreme on the Attention spectrum are people with a Focused style; at the other, those who are Unfocused.

Professor Richardson writes, “Everyone has elements of each of these dimensions of Emotional Style. Because there are so many ways to combine these six dimensions, there’re countless Emotional Styles; everyone is unique.” People differ by a factor of thirty in the level of their prefrontal cortex activity associated with happiness and approach or with fear, disgust, anxiety, and withdrawal.

A Wealth Tax

March 15, 2020

This post is motivated by an article by Michael Birnbaum titled, “Warren, Sanders want a wealth tax. Swiss suggest their model for America” in the 4 March 2020 issue of the Washington Post. Economists advising Sanders and Warren point to Switzerland’s wealth tax as a successful one. And some deep-pocketed Swiss say their wealthy American peers should consider Switzerland’s system.

Peter Kurer, a former chairman of UBS, Switzerland’s largest bank, and now head of the country’s second-largest phone and Internet provider, said, “Rich people can live with a wealth tax. There are many wealthy people in the United States who don’t pay any taxes at all, and this spoils social peace.”

“Hitting the wealthy based on their assets is an old practice here, dating to Switzerland’s origins as a unified confederation in the mid-19th century. In the country’s highly decentralized system, where most tax decisions are put directly to voters, wealth taxes have reaffirmed again and again by citizens, a sign of broad support.”

“Here in Solothurn, a German-speaking state about 50 miles west of Zurich, the wealth tax is so popular that residents opted to increase it by nearly a third in a Feb. 9 referendum, while also trimming corporate rates in a kind of compromise. Each of Switzerland’s 29 states gets to to pick its own tax rates, though all must have a wealth tax.”

Roland Helm, Solothurn’s top finance official, who presided over the tax compromise as a state councilor from the center-right Christian Democratic party said, “For the people, it’s normal that those who have more rich than others have to pay more than others. It’s a part of justice.”

In Europe, only Spain, Norway, Belgium, and Switzerland impose wealth taxes. France scrapped its wealth tax in 2018, after tens of thousand of millionaires were estimated to have left. But Americans are liable for US taxes regardless of where they reside. So the wealthy who left the United States could, along with their offspring, be prohibited from re-entering the US. They would be in permanent exile until they paid their taxes. There are many Russian billionaires affiliated with Russian mobs, who would like to enter the United States, but are prohibited. The US is a highly desirable country in which to reside or visit, so precluding tax owing citizens from reentering the country would provide a strong disincentive for owing taxes.

It important to make a distinction between earned wealth and inherited wealth. Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates have amassed fortunes by generating new businesses that benefited the economy. Warren Buffet generated a fortune through wise investing. These fortunes can be justified. It is interesting that Warrant Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates do not believe in leaving their wealth to their children. They believe that doing so would not be in the general interest of their children. Bill and Melinda Gates work developing a charitable corporation that uses operations research to find those populations and areas of the globe that are most needing of assistance. Warren Buffet is transferring his wealth to their foundation. Inherited wealth can be, and frequently is, pernicious.

At this point, please allow a digression to the royalty and peerage of Great Britain. At one time the King or Queen and the peerage controlled virtually all the wealth in the country. Over time, that has greatly decreased. But what was the justification for royalty and the peerage? It was by thuggish acquisition and warfare. Their aires inherited their wealth and power.

One can make an analogy between British royalty and the peerage to Americans who inherit wealth. This introduces distortions and inequities into the countries. In the United States

In 2010 the Top 1% had 35.4% of the wealth
The top 5% had 63% of the wealth
The top 20% had 88,9% of the wealth
And the bottom 80% had 11.1 % of the wealth

And the situation has become more unequal in 2020.

So why should this be a concern? As the share of the nation’s wealth going to the wealthy rises, the share going to everyone else falls. What else falls? The freedom that wealth can buy, and the power that wealth can buy. Technically, we may still have one person, one vote (but given the menacing Electoral College, not for Presidential elections). But the effect of one person on elections has gone way down.

Thomas Piketty makes a distinction between productive wealth and reinvestment wealth. Productive wealth is the wealth generated by work, by producing and selling things or services, and the kind of wealth Adam Smith talked about.

Reinvestment wealth is generated by receiving returns on investments and then reinvesting the returns over and over. This kind of wealth grows exponentially, like compound interest. The more you have, the more you invest, and the more you invest, the more you have.

Most inherited wealth is reinvestment wealth. Read the healthy memory blog post “The Piketty Insight on the Accelerating Wealth Gap” to understand why this is undesirable.

The most effective way and addressing this glaring inequality is to gradually chip away the inequality with a wealth tax.

Altruism: Doing What is Right

March 14, 2020

This post is based on content in a book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney. In 2003, a team of University of Massachusetts researchers led by Carolyn Schwartz reported that altruism, or what some call social interest, was associated with better life adjustment, better marital adjustment, and less hopelessness and depression. Both giving and receiving help from others predicted better mental health, although giving help to others was a stronger predictor. The researchers found that social interest moderated life stress and predicted physical health status. They developed the theory that the association between social interest, better mental health, and reduced stress may be related to a shift in attention from the self to others, enhanced self-confidence and self-acceptance, a reframing of one’s own disease experience, and a greater perceived meaning in life.

The authors write that altruism also appears to foster resilience among children who have survived highly stressful environments. In Israel, longitudinal study of physically abused children, Hanita Zimrin and colleagues found that those children who adapted well over time were more likely to assume responsibility for someone else, like a sibling or pet, than were those who fared poorly. In Emily Werner’s classic study of children living in poverty on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, children who helped others in a meaningful way (by assisting a family member, a neighbor, or some community member) were most likely to lead successful lives as adults.

The flip side of altruism is narcissism. Narcissistic individuals see themselves as the center of things, and constantly believe that they deserve more attention, understanding, and assistance than others. David Brooks in his book The Road to Character cites a survey by the Gallup Organization that “asked high school seniors if they considered themselves to be a very important person. In 1950, 12% said yes. In 2005, an astounding 80% said yes. Jean Twenge and colleagues in a book titled the Narcissism Epidemic reported that today’s young people score 30% higher on a test called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory than their peers did 20 years ago.

To put this in the context of resilience, the relationship is the more altruistic the more resilient. And the more narcissistic, the less resilient. In other words, focusing on others, enhances resilience. Focusing on oneself can virtually eliminate resilience. A good example of this is Donald Trump. He has been consistently diagnosed for having the narcissistic personality disorder. Trump’s focus is entirely on himself. It is quite obvious that Trump puts himself before the country he is supposed to be leading. And he has virtually no resilience. He takes offense at extremely small matters, and responds with nicknames and insults one would expect from a schoolyard bully.

Practical Applications: Learning to Face Fear

March 13, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in a book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney. The authors write, “Fear is ubiquitous. No one escapes its grip. Fear even strikes individuals who are widely admired for their courage. South African dissident Nelson Mandela reported that during his years of imprisonment and struggle against oppression, ‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’”

With regard to learning and practicing the skills necessary to master the fear, West point instructor Col. Thomas Kolditz advises us to focus on our breath: “Of all the autonomic responses to the adrenalin rush—including heart rate, respiration, skin conductivity, and muscle tension—the one that we can best control consciousness is respiration. Deep controlled breathing is largely incompatible with the other elements of the fear response. Physical relaxation can get to the point where mental relaxation, and therefore outward focus, be re-established and maintained.”

Most people find it easier to face fear in the company of other people, especially those whom they know and trust. This helps in various ways. It may increase our ability to make a realistic approach of the feared situation. It may also reduce physiological stress responses, such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure, hyperventilations, and stomach “butterflies.” People tend to feel more confident and are better able to cope with problems by finding constructive solutions rather than avoidance with supportive friends or colleagues by their side.

Spiritual insight can fight fear. One practitioner writes, “I see fear as energy. I try to come into the body and feel where it is lodged, and breathe into it and allow it to flow. If it is not moving, I turn to my spiritual practices, which include chanting, meditation, body movement and yoga, to help the stuck energy move. Once it is moving, the essential self underneath—the inner spirit—is more accessible and the fear has no more power over me. Making the decision to face my fear rather than repress or run from it is half the battle. I believe we all have the capacity to do this; however, we need to know that we have the choice.

In his book Mindfulnesss in Plain English, the Buddhist monk Bhante H. Gunaratana notes that mindfulness and meditation require attention to reality. He writes: Meditation is running straight into reality. It does not insulate you from the pain of life but rather allows you to delve so deeply into life and all its aspects that you pierce the pain barrier and go beyond suffering…

In order to observe our fear, we must accept the fact that we are afraid. We can’t examine our own depression without accepting it fully. The same is true for irritation and agitation, frustration and all those other uncomfortable emotional states. You can’t examine something fully if you are busy rejecting its existence.

To deal with Fear Gunaratana writes, “Observe the fear exactly as it is. Don’t cling to it. Just watch it rising and growing. Study its effect. See how it makes you feel and how it affects your body. When you find yourself in the grip of horror fantasies, simply observe those mindfully. Watch the pictures as pictures. See memories as memories. Observe the emotional reactions the come along and know them for what they are. Don’t try to repress the memories or the feelings or the fantasies. Just step out of the way and let the whole mess bubble up and flow past. It can’t hurt you. It is just a memory. It is only a fantasy. It is nothing to fear,”

Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Buddhist monk who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in the Vietnam War Paris Talks, recognizes that all of us are afraid. He writes, “Fear is always there within us: the fear of getting old, the fear of getting sick, the fear of dying, the fear of being abandoned by our loved ones. It is very human to be fearful and to worry about it.”

But he also understands that hiding from fear is not the answer. “If you try to run away, instead of confronting or embracing your ill-being, you will not look deeply into its nature and you will never have the chance to see a way out. That is why you should hold your suffering tenderly and closely, looking directly into it, to discover its true nature to find a way out.”

He continues, “The Buddha advised us to invite these fears to the upper level of our consciousness, recognize them and smile at them. To do so was the daily practice for monks and nuns in the time of the Buddha, as it is for monks and nuns now. Every time your fear is invited up, every time you recognize it and smile at it, your fear will lose some of its strength. When it returns to the depth of your consciousness, it returns as a smaller seed. That is why the practice should be done even day, especially when you are feeling mentally and physically strong.

There are many healthy memory posts on meditation and mindfulness. Just enter “meditation” or “mindfulness” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com
If you are not familiar with the relaxation response, it might be good to begin with the “relaxation response”

The Neuroscience of Extinction

March 12, 2020

This post is based on a book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest on Challenges by by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney. The process of overcoming a learned fear is called extinction. It involves the brain structures that were discussed in earlier posts on this book (amygdala, prefrontal cortex (PFC), and hippocampus). To extinguished a fear-conditioned memory, a person must be exposed to the fear-inducing stimulus in a safe environment, and the exposure needs to last long enough for the brain to form a new memory. The new memory conveys that the fear-conditioned stimulus is no longer dangerous in the present environment. Brain imaging suggests that extinction may involve a strengthening of the capacity of the PFC to inhibit amygdala-based fear responses.

One therapy, flooding or direct exposure, requires prolonged exposure to the memory of the traumatic event. The therapy consists of “extended exposure to moderate or strong fear-producing cues. In their imagination, patients are asked to recount the traumatic experience with eyes closed and in as much detail as possible, describing sights, sounds, smells, and sensations, as well as what they were thinking and feeling. These sessions are recorded, and the client listens to the recording repeatedly on subsequent days. In the in-vivo component, clients “gradually confront safe situations that evoke moderate levels of anxiety and then follow up with confrontation of more fearful situations.

As extinction involves new learning, and the protein molecule known as the NMDA receptor is critical to learning, Barbara Rothbaum and colleagues gave the NMDA receptor partial agonist D-closerine (DCS) with exposure therapy. DCS is a drug that activates the NMDA receptor which then enhances learning of the new memory. This study supported the conclusion that these treatments fostered the desired extinction. Unfortunately, this type of treatment has not always resulted in success, but the prospect of augmenting extinction-based therapies, like prolonged exposure, with medications that affect learning is positive.

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) also involves confronting fear. It uses the Socratic method of teaching, in which the teacher poses questions and the student, by answering them, learns new ways of understanding. CPT focuses on emotions such as anger, humiliation, shame, guilt, and sadness, which trauma survivors often experience in addition to fear and anxiety. It is not uncommon for trauma victims to believe that they could have done something to prevent the traumatic or acted more heroically to minimize harm, even if in reality such actions would have been impossible. They tend to blame themselves and to imagine that others blame them as well. For example, a crime victim may have unrealistic beliefs such as, “I shouldn’t have gone to the ATM that night.” A therapist using CPT asks questions aimed at helping the patient to arrive at the more realistic conclusion that he or she could not have predicted that a robber would chose that particular ATM on that particular evening, and that the fault lies with the thief, not with the victim.

One does not necessarily have to undergo therapy to transform or extinguish a fearful memory. It takes courage, but one can try to confront the fearful event and through repetitions extinguish the fear. So the best response to falling off a horse might be to get back on.

The Neuroscience of Optimism

March 11, 2020

This title of a book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney has a chapter titled Optimism. This post is on the neuroscience of optimism section in this book.

The three brain regions that play a central role in optimism are : the prefrontal cortex; the amygdala; and reward systems including the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), ventral-segmental area, and the nucleus accumbens. The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s executive center; it is essential for guiding behavior, regulating emotions, and understanding the difference between potential rewards and punishments. It is also necessary for imagining the future and setting goals, which are functions directly related to optimism. The prefrontal cortex enables us to engage in optimistic processes such as hoping for the best and imagining a bright future, anticipating and preparing to meet a challenge, and making plans to achieve and enjoy success.

The second brain area involved in optimism is the amygdala. The amygdala plays a role in triggering “raw emotions” such as fear or excitement. In this way the amygdala plays a role in our ability to experience positive emotions. There is evidence that the amygdala plays an important role in imagining future emotional events including positive events.

The reward circuitry—the ACC, ventral-segmental area, and nucleus accumbens also appear to play a role in optimism. These are associated with the rewarding effects of social attachment, eating, sex, and other pleasurable stimuli. Not surprisingly, reward circuitry is generally active when we are engaged in behaviors we enjoy. Acute stress tends to reduce activity in these circuits. The neurotransmitter associated with reward is dopamine. Alice Isen and her colleagues have found that dopamine improves cognitive flexibility and perspective-taking. These researchers, along with others, believe that the broadened perspective and flexible cognitive style that accompany positive emotions may be related to increased dopamine.

Psychologist Tali Sharot along with colleagues instructed subjects to imagine both positive (winning an award) and negative (ending a romantic relationships) future events while undergoing fMRI in order to understand how the brain generates the positive bias that characterizes optimism. When participants imagined a positive future event, activation of the amygdala and the ACC increased. The greatest activation of these regions occurred in participants with the highest scores on a measure of dispositional optimism, the LOT-R (Life Orientation Test-Revised).

Richard Davidson and his colleagues have found that optimism is associated with high activity in the left prefrontal cortex with prolonged engagement of subcortical reward circuitry. On the other hand, depression has been associated with low prefrontal activity and inability to sustain reward circuitry activation. Heller and his colleagues have said that the ability to savor and sustain positive emotion is “critical to daily function well-being and to health.

The authors conducted research in which fMRI was used to examine emotional responses to negative stimuli among three groups of women: 14 women who have been sexually assaulted and developed PTSD, 14 who had been sexually assaulted and had not developed PTSD, and 14 who had never been assaulted. Each participant was shown 60 emotionally negative pictures during the study. Immediately before viewing each negative picture, participants were given one of three instructions: to “enhance,” to “diminish,” or to “maintain” their emotional response to that picture. Non traumatized healthy controls were best able to decrease their emotional response to negative pictures as measured by subjective ratings and degree of PFC activation. Unexpectedly, the trauma-exposed resilient group had greater PFC activation following the “enhance” instruction than did the trauma-exposed PTSD group. The authors conclude that these findings suggest that the ability to focus effortfully on negative emotional responses and engage cognitive/linguistic ares of the brain in order to manage, diminish or extinguish the negative emotion may be an important component of resilience.

The authors offer these four ways to become more optimistic:

Focus attention on the positive things around us.

2. Intentionally think positive thoughts and do not dwell on negative thoughts.

3. Reframe the negative and interpret events in a more positive light.

4. Behave and take action in ways that build positive feelings.

Optimism

March 10, 2020

This title of a book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney has a chapter titled Optimism: Belief in a Brighter Future. It begins, “Optimism ignites resilience, providing energy to power the other resilience factors. It facilitates an active and creative approach to coping with challenging situations….Optimism is a future-oriented attitude, a confidence that things will turn out well.” They believe that good things will happen to them, and that with hard work, they will succeed.

Shelly Taylor and other psychologists have identified two styles of optimism: dispositional optimism, which is also called trait optimism, pervades the individual’s outlook and tends to be stable from one situation to another; and situational optimism, in which the individual may feel hopeful and expect a favorable outcome in one situation but not in another. Even under adverse circumstances these people manage to build on whatever small glimmer of optimistic thinking the can find.

The authors make the point that blind optimism does not work. They note that optimism as a resilience trait does not mean blindly ignoring life’s problems or viewing the world through “rose-colored glasses.” Realistic optimists pay close attention to negative information that is relevant to the problems they face. However, they do not remain focused on the negative. They tend to disengage rapidly from problems that appear to be unsolvable; they know then to cut their losses and turn their attention to solvable problems.

Diane Coutu discusses the importance of playing close attention to negative information in the context of business success: “That’s not to say that optimism doesn’t have its place: In turning around a demoralized sales force, for instance, conjuring a sense of possibility can be a very powerful tool. But for bigger challenges, a cool, almost pessimistic, sense of reality is far more important…Facing reality, really facing it, is grueling work. Indeed, it can be unpleasant and emotionally wrenching.”

Psychologist Sandra Schneider writes that realistic optimism is qualitatively different from the blind variety: “A realistic outlook improves chances to negotiate the environment successfully, whereas an optimistic outlook places priority on feeling good. But are realistic and optimistic outlooks necessarily in conflict?” She points out that in many cases, optimism and realism don’t conflict, but “there remain ‘optimistic biases’ that do involve self-deception, or convincing oneself of desired beliefs without appropriate reality checks.” Justin Kruger and David Dunning write that it tends to lead to “an underestimation of risk, an overestimation of ability, and inadequate preparation.”

Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf is a most remarkable case. She believed that her own brand of optimism was the product of years of deprivation. After suffering what was called “brain fever” when she was 19 months old, she suffered five years suffering “outbursts of passion”, screaming, daily (and sometime hours) temper tantrums and fits of violent and uncontrollable behavior. Fortunately in 1887 a most remarkable individual entered her life, Anne Sullivan. She taught Helen to understand letters and words, traced her hand and then to read Braille. Her progress was so rapid and extraordinary that within a few years she became a “phenemon,” reaching widespread publicity and meeting with world dignitaries, including Alexander Graham Bell and President Grover Cleveland.

After four years of study at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, she applied to Radcliffe College. Keller was informed only a day or two before the entrance exam that the mathematic portion would be given in a style of Braille unfamiliar to her, so that she had to learn an entirely new set of symbols over night. She wrote,”I do not blame anyone. The administrative board of Radcliffe did not realize how difficult they were making my examinations, nor did they understand the peculiar difficulties I had to surmount. But they unintentionally placed obstacles in my way, I have the consolation of knowing that I overcame them all.”

A portion of her essay “Optimism” follows:
“Most people measure happiness in terms of physical pleasure and material possession. Could they win some visible goal which they have set on the horizon, how happy they would be! Lacking this gift or that circumstance, they would be miserable. If happiness is to be so measured, I who cannot hear or see have every reason to sit in a corner with folded hands and weep.”

and

“A man must understand evil and be acquainted with sorrow before he can write himself an optimist and expect others others to believe that he has reason for the faith that is in him. I know what evil is…I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism then does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and everyone, and make that Best a part of my life.”

One could easily call Helen Keller the most resilient person who has ever lived, so she constitutes proof that optimism does increase resilience. Barbara Fredrickson has developed what she calls the broaden and build model of positive emotions. She differentiates the functions of negative and positive emotions and notes that negative emotions such as anger, fear, and disgust help us to survive by preparing us for danger. They do this by activating the sympathetic nervous system, which increases physiological arousal. This “fight-flight” reaction narrows your visual focus and tends to restrict our behavior to those that are essential for attacking or fleeing.

Fredrickson also notes that positive emotions, in contrast, have been shown to reduce physiological arousal and to broaden our visual focus, our thoughts, and our behavior. Experiencing positive emotions results in an accompanying broadening of attention and behavior. Consequently, their thinking tends to become more creative, inclusiive, flexible, and integrative. Experiments have shown that inducing a positive mood (by showing participants a funny movie, or reading them a funny story) increases people’s scope of attention, their ability to solve problems actively, and their interest in socializing, and in strenuous as well as leisurely activities. So by broadening attention and action, positive emotions can contribute to our creativity, physical health, relations with family and friends, our ability to acquire new knowledge, and our psychological resilience.

There are many healthy memory post on optimism. The can be found by entering “optimism” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com.

Bouncing Back

March 9, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in a book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney. The complete title is “Bouncing Back is a Choice—but the Choice is Easier for Some.” Many of us have learned that stress is bad. But when stress can be managed, it tends to be very good and even necessary for health and growth. The mind and body weaken without it. So if we can learn to harness stress it can serve as a catalyst for developing greater strength and even greater wisdom.

But the authors acknowledge that building resilience and bouncing back is easier for some than for others. People who are either temporarily or permanently unable to think clearly or regulate their moods will have difficulty putting into practice the advice in their book. For example, someone who is experiencing an episode of major depression will be handicapped by the sadness and sense of hopelessness, lack of energy, and loss of interest in life that characterize this disorder. Another example is someone who has suffered a traumatic brain injury may have particular difficulties with cognitive strategies and/or emotional challenges. The authors advise people with these kinds of serious conditions who want to practice the skills associated with resilience to work with a professional who is trained in dealing with their specific condition.

Even for those who do not suffer from these problems, the path to bounce back is steeper for some than for others. Those with resources such as financial security, a high level of education, an interesting and rewarding career, and strong social networks are able to leverage these resources, whereas people who lack resources may fall into what psychologist Stevan Hobfoll calls a “loss spiral.” A family that loses its home in a hurricane will have no place to live, while another family has the option to move in with relatives, and yet another family will be fortunate enough to own a second house.

The authors conclude, “When we advocate for resilience, we believe that most of us can choose to fight back after a trauma and attempt to right ourselves. However, we must emphasize with some people who lack access to support and resources that make it easier, or even possible, to do so. This does not mean that those with scarce resources should give up, but rather recognize that they will have a more difficult road to travel. Understanding these limitations may allow us to be more patient with ourselves or with others who are striving to recover from trauma.”

Nevertheless there are practices and ways of thinking and living that help inoculate us from trauma, so that we are resilient and bounce back quickly. These practices and ways of thinking will be presented in the following posts based on this book.

Neuroplasticity

March 8, 2020

This post is based on portions of a book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney. There have been many previous healthymemory posts on this topic. Neuroplasticity refers to “the ability of the nervous system to respond to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, function, and connections.”

For many years the brain was thought of as a fixed organ, but neuroplasticity means brain plasticity. Brain structure is highly plastic, and like muscles in the body, the brain can be strengthened or weakened depending on how it is used. When cells in the brain are actively used, they transmit their messages more efficiently and form more connections with other cells. However, when brain cells are not stimulated, they die and are pruned away. The well-known adage, use it or lose it, applies to the brain in spades.

Since the mid-1990s, brain changes in professional musicians have been identified and related to the instruments they play. Researchers have found that in professional players of string instruments (violin, viola, cello, and bass) “the cortical representation of the digits of the left hand (the fingering hand) was larger” than in control subjects, whereas the right hand (which holds the bow and is not involved in fingering) did not display such differences. Ruger, Lindenberg, and Schlaud studying brain activity in string players as well as keyboard players and non musicians found differences in the structure of not just gray-matter motor areas, but also in the white-matter fibers that connect brain areas. In string players these were larger in the right hemisphere (controlling the left hand), but inn keyboard players they were large in both brain hemispheres Choi and his colleagues studied wind instrument players and found enlargement in areas of the brain responsible for lip movement. Moreover, the greater the number of years of musical training, the more pronounced the brain changes.

Research on mindfulness-based stress reduction, a practice related to the mindfulness meditation, is part of some traditional Eastern religions. Omar Singleton and his colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the brains of volunteers before and after an eight-week program of mindfulness-based stress reduction, “defined as the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment.” They found an increase in the size of certain brain regions that produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine, that are critically involved in regulating arousal, attention, mood, reward, and learning. Moreover, these volunteers scored higher on an assessment of psychological well-being after the eight-week program.

Each of us has, to some degree, the power to change the structure and function of our brain. As noted by well-known author Deepak Chopra, MD and Harvard neuroscientist Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D., “Neuroplasticity is better than mind over matter. It’s mind turning into matter as your thoughts create new neuronal growth. Activity is the key. By repeatedly activating specific areas of the brain, we can strengthen those areas.

Why Sleep Researchers Oppose Daylight Saving Time

March 7, 2020

The short answer is that it results in poor quality sleep, and readers of the healthy memory blog should be well aware of the importance of sleep to a healthy memory. Now for the more detailed reasons.

Phyllis Zee, a sleep researcher at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago says that time changes mess with sleep schedules, a potential problem when so many people are already sleep deprived. About 1 in 3 adults sleep less than the recommended seven-plus hours a night. More than half of U.S. teens don’t get the eight-plus hours on weeknights. One study in the U.S. found that in the week following the spring switch to daylight saving time, teens slept about 2.5 hours less than the previous week. Many people never catch up during the subsequent six months. Research suggests that chronic sleep deprivation can increase levels of stress hormones that boost heart rate and blood pressure, and of chemicals that trigger inflammation.

It has also been shown that blood tends to clot more readily in the morning. These changes underlie evidence that heart attacks are more common in general in the morning, and may explain studies showing that rates increase sightly on Mondays after clocks are moved forward in the spring, when people typically rise an hour earlier than normal. That increased risk associated with the time change is mainly in people already vulnerable because of existing heart disease, says Barry Franklin, director of preventive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at Beaumont Health hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. Studies suggest that these people return to their baseline risk after the autumn time change.

There are numerous studies linking the start of daylight saving time in the spring with a brief spike in car accidents, and with poor performance on tests of alertness, both probably caused by sleep loss. Research includes a German study published this year that found an increase in traffic fatalities in the week after the start of daylight saving time, but no such increase in the fall.

Circadian biologists believe ill health effects from daylight saving time result from a mismatch between the sun “clock,” our social clock—work and school schedules—and the body’s internal 24-hour clock. Ticking away at the molecular level, the biological clock is entrained—or set—by explosion to sunlight and darkness. It regulates bodily functions such as metabolism, blood pressure and hormones that promote sleep and alertness. Disruptions to the body clock have been linked with obesity, depression, diabetes, heart problems, and other conditions. Circadian biologists say these disruptions include tinkering with standard time to move the clock ahead one hour in the spring. A mismatch of one hour-daily is enough for ill effects, especially if it lasts for several months, said Till Roennberg, a circadian rhythm specialist at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

Federal law allows states to remain on standard time year-round, but only Hawaii and Arizona have chosen to do so.

Epigenetics

March 6, 2020

This post is based on portions of a book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney. A common question that arises when discussing many topics is the nature nurture issue. That is how much of a person is determined by that person’s genes and how much by the environment. That is a naive question that is difficult to answer for two reasons. One is that there is natural confound here, and that is how to distinguish the effects of genetics and the environment. IQ measurements can be separated mathematically into a genetic component and an environmental component. Although this can be done mathematically it cannot be done empirically as these two components are confounded.
There is a true anecdote illustrating this confound. It tells of two sisters who are identical twins, yet one is academically and socially successful, whereas the other has the autistic spectrum disorder.

Epigenetics is the study of how genes are read out or expressed. It matters not if you have fantastic genes, but the information in these genes is not manifested. A variety of internal and external environmental events, such as stress, social support, and fear, can trigger biochemical reactions, such as methylation, that then turns genes on or of. Moreover, these processes are dynamic and potentially reversible. So when a gene is “turned on” it directs the making of gene products, such as proteins. But, when a gene is “turned off” these gene products are no longer produced.

Zang has conducted studies showing that if a mother rat provides only low levels of licking and grooming to her pups, which is analogous to neglectful parenting in the rat world, the pub will exhibit increased susceptibility to stress throughout their lives. But attentive maternal care, as reflected by high levels of licking and grooming, can contribute to later stress resilience. These effects of maternal licking and grooming appear to be mediated, at least in part, by epigenetic changes in gene expression. Research conducted in Michael Meaney’s laboratory has shown that variations in maternal care have been associated with variations in expression of glucocorticoid receptors and hippocampal sensitivity to stress. According to Nestler, similar epigenetic effects of maternal care, as well as other lifetime experiences, on later vulnerability or resilience to stress are likely to “hold up in humans.”

The authors write, “A variety of environmental events, including stress, social interactions, and drug use, can cause epigenetic changes in gene expression. Although much remains to be learned, the rapidly expanding field of epigenetics may soon help us to better understand the origins of stress vulnerability and discover ways to manage it. It may also help us to better understand resilience and the mechanisms by which training can enhance factors associated with resilience (e e.g. exercise, social support, cognitive reframing). And as noted by psychopharmacologist Steven Stahl, “psychotherapy can now be conceptualized not only by its classic psychodynamic principles, but also indeed as a neurological problem capable of inducing epigenetic changes in brain circuits, not unlike the ultimate actions of psychotropic drugs.”

Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges

March 5, 2020

The title of this post is the same as the title a book written by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney. This post is the first of a series of posts based on this book. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, threats and even significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stresses.”

Here are the key brain regions with respect to resilience:

The amygdala, which is associated with fear and alarm; it plays a central role in fear conditioning and in triggering raw emotions and the “fight or flight” response.

The prefrontal cortex, which is commonly referred to as the brain’s “executive center,” facilitates planning and rational decision-making; it helps regulate emotions and acts to keep the amygdala ( the “fear and alarm center”) in check.

The hippocampus, which plays a critical role in learning, forming new memories, and regulating the stress response; more so than many other brain structures, it is vulnerable to the effect of chronic stress.

The anterior cingulate cortex, which plays an important role in our ability to focus attention, detect and monitor errors and conflicts, assess the importance of emotional and motivational information, and regulate emotions; it is connected both to the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.

The anterior insula, which is located in the fold of the cerebral cortex that marks the boundary between the frontal and temporal lobes; it is involved in functions related to emotions, and aids in the brain’s awareness of the body’s internal physical state.

The nucleus accumbens, sometimes referred to as the “pleasure center,” plays a central role in the brain’s reward circuitry; in association with the ventral segmental area, it mediates the experience of reward and punishment, and is associated with the pleasurable effects of food, sex, and drug abuse.

The limbic system refers to the inner portion of the brain—located beneath the cortex—which is involved in emotion, memory and other functions. It includes the amygdala, hippocampus, and a number of other structures and regions. Although the limbic system is neither a system nor a structure, the term provides a useful shorthand for referring to this area of the brain.

The autonomic nervous system is composed of two parts. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS mobilizes the body under conditions of stress. The PNS conserves resources and maintains functioning under normal stressful conditions. During healthy functioning, it is beneficial for the SNS to have a robust response to stress and challenge, but also for the SNS to return to baseline rapidly after the stressful event is over. Another major system is the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis (HPA axis), which responds to stress with a complex set of reactions involving the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.

Here are the different hormones and neurotransmitters that are involved in the stress response and resilience:

Cortisol is a stress hormone released through activation of the HPA axis. It produces energy by converting food into fat and glucose (a form of sugar). It also temporarily bolsters the immune system.
Epinephrine, also known as adrenalin, is part of the SNS. It is erased by the adrenal glands under conditions of stress and accelerates heart rate, constricts blood vessels and dilates air passages as part of the SNS fight-or-flight response.

Norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline, is also part of the SNS. It facilitates alerting and alarm reactions in the brain and is critical for responding to danger and for remembering emotional and fearful events.

Serotonin is involved in the regulation of mood, as well as sleep, appetite, and other functions.

Dopamine is associated with pleasurable feelings and plays a key role in the reward systems of the brain. For this reason, it is an important factor in cravings and addictive behaviors.

Neuropeptide Y (NPY) is associated with decreasing anxiety and hastening return to baseline after the nervous system reacts to stress.

Oxytocin is associated with maternal behaviors, pair bonding, social communication, trust, social support, and anxiety reduction.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) acts in support the nervous system through the repair of existing neurons an growth of new ones.

Resilience

March 3, 2020

This post is based on a book by Rowan Hooper titled Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of our Capacity. As we leaned in the post Longevity, resilience is a strong contributor to a longer life. Resilience also increases the success of our activities during this longer life.

There are a variety of factors contributing to resilience, but this post is focusing on those we can control. Ann Masten, a psychologist at the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the University of Minnesota, calls the power of resilience “ordinary magic.” She thinks it is magic anyone can use. Nimbi Hutnik’s team at London South Bank University says resilience, although a complex mix of biology, psychology, and environment, has the potential to be taught. It is worth noting that exercises in mental resilience can be learned, and can be used to promote health and well-being..

Hooper writes, “The capacity to be super resilient may be there even in us normal people, but we need guidance and support to find it, maybe from psychotherapy, maybe from friends. We need help to be optimistic, encouraged to take control, and empowered to be responsible. We need a certain amount of self-love. A touch of narcissism is good! We need to stand up for ourselves so we are not mistreated at work or in relationships, we need to be assertive without devaluing others, and have a self-image that is positive without being conceited, This mixture of personality traits will drive you forward. Some of them can be constructed, if you do not have them naturally.”

HM adds, being super resilient is certainly desirable, but plain old vanilla resilience can be quite good. HM also adds that meditation is extremely useful in the pursuit of resilience.

Look forward to more posts on this important topic.

Longevity: How Long Will We Live

March 2, 2020

 

This post is based on a book by Rowan Hooper titled Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of our Capacity. The longest lived person on record is Jeannae Calment who died in 1917 at the age of 122. It is recorded that she did smoke, but only one or two cigarettes per day. Her diet was rich in olive oil and chocolates (1 kilo per week).

Blue Zones is the name for areas were centenarians tend to cluster. The people on Okinawa’s western edge are the longest lived people in the world. Not surprisingly these people have been well studied for clues to their remarkable lifespan. Their diet is high in tofu, fresh vegetables, and fresh fish. Their social structure is tight-knit and supportive. Their lifestyle includes activities such a bashofu (a traditional form of fabric weaving) plus the habit of hara hachi, which is a Confucian practice of eating only until you are 80% full.

There are other blue zones such as Sardinia, in the Italian Mediterranean, and the Nicola peninsula of Costa Rica, and the Greek island of Ikaria.

There is one Blue Zone in the United States the city of Loma Linda, in California. HM’s sister-in law lives there. Men in Loma Linda have a life expectancy of 88, and women a year more. The town has been extensively settled by members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Seventh Dayers don’t drink or smoke (smoking is banned in the town) and most are vegetarians. According to the scientist at the New England Centenarian Study, this is the baseline lifespan for the rest of us if only we ate well and took better care of ourselves.

Mental resilience is another important factor. According to the biographer of Jeannae Calment, she was biologically immune to stress. She had a saying, “If you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it.” She also ascribed her longevity to her calm approach to stress.

There is a common Japanese expression, sho ga nai, which means “nothing can be done about it.” A variant, shikata ga nai, is similar meaning “it cannot be helped.”

If you’re counting on your genes carrying you well into old age, stop counting. Genetics do play a factor, but not as large as many think. Moreover, specific genes have been identified that contribute to aging, but each of these genes has a small effect, and there needs to be a large group to achieve a noticeable effect. The have also identified a disease-associated gene, but there have been long living individuals who managed to outlive this gene.

The reader can draw their own conclusions from this post. HM would suggest living as healthy a life style as one can tolerate. Maintain healthy social interactions. Shun stress and foster resilience. Meditation should be extremely useful in shunning stress and fostering resilience. There is a very large number of posts on meditation. Just enter “relaxation response” in the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com. Follow this with entering “meditation” in the search block.

Happiness

March 1, 2020

This post is motivated by a book by Rowan Hooper titled Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of our Capacity.

Here is a famous poem by E.A. Robinson

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

The following taken from Voltaire, Notebooks

“We all look for happiness, but without knowing where to find it: like drunkards who look for their house, knowing dimly that they have one.”

So happiness appears to be an elusive concept. Actually, happiness is easy to achieve provided that one has an appropriate frame of mind. Take people with the locked-in syndrome, for example. In the extreme form of the locked-in syndrome, the sufferers have no means of interacting with the external world.

But Jean-Dominique Bauby was still able to blink his eyes after suffering a devastating stroke, He managed to write the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking his eye. This book was made into a highly recommended motion picture. He died shortly after this book was published.

Brain imaging has identified living individuals who were locked in and had no means, even eye-blinking. This finding was extremely depressing. Yet, to the best of HM’s knowledge, none of these individuals requested that their lives be ended.

Hooper relates the stories of several individuals who are classified as being locked in as their means of interacting with the world are severely limited, yet who are happy in their lives. One of these individuals said, “I’ve come to the conclusion that my brain’s default setting is happiness.” Others, while not attributing their happiness to their brain setting, showed resilience in adapting to their condition.

It is likely that the majority of humans believe that wealth paves the road to happiness, although that was certainly not the case with Richard Cory; and there are wealthy people who do commit suicide.

Researchers Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that as income increases, so does happiness, although it increases at increasingly smaller amounts. This kind of measure of happiness is called lifetime evaluation.

A more accurate technique for measuring happiness is called experiential sampling. In this method, you buzz people randomly on their mobiles throughout the day, and ask them, “How happy are you right now, on a scale of 1 to 10. Using the experimental sampling measure there is no increase beyond $75,000. As that study was done a few years ago, that amount has obviously increased. The point is that what is commonly regarded as a good salary hits the effective maximum. In other words, a million dollars a year does not make you happier. This study’s done by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton of Princeton University that analyzed 450,000 experimental response from 1000 US citizens.

Yet there are billionaires still motivated to earn more and more billions. As these people can live only one life, and their extend families can only extend so far, one wonders why. Apparently, it is simply a matter of ego. These people do give money, but it is usually black money given to politicians or to organizations that support politicians that will fight tax increases and any laws they fill will restrict their growth of income. They also want to restrict and control the lives of fellow citizens so that they march to the drummer they want these citizens to march to.

One would think that via philanthropy, they can increase the well-being of others. Excellent examples of these people are Warrant Buffet, one of the world’s foremost capitalists, and William and Melinda Gates, who are using both their wealth and operations research to maximize the effects of their giving. Both Buffet and the Gates are against inherited wealth because they do not think it is good for their children. It is also not good for the health of the country. Inherited wealth has a pernicious effect.

There are also people who achieve happiness by working directly for the public and the needy. There is a post on this blog, Trump vs. a Buddhist Monk that argues that the Buddhist Monk is the happier of the two.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2020. 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.