Posts Tagged ‘Amygdala’

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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 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.

Focus

February 29, 2020

Be true to the thought of the moment and avoid distraction. Other than continuing to exert yourself, enter into nothing else, but go to the extent of living single thought by single thought.”

—Yamamoto Tsunetomo (c. 1710)

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a book by Rowan Hooper titled Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of our Capacity. Michael Easterman is a cofounder of the Boston Attention and Learning Lab at Boston University. He says, “The science shows that when people are motivated, either intrinsically, i.e., they love it; or extrinsically, i.e., they will get a prize, they’re better able to maintain consistent brain activity, and maintain readiness for the readiness for the unexpected.” Motivation means this consistency doesn’t fall off over time.

In one experiment, participants were shown a random sequence of photographs of cities and mountain scenes, one every 800 milliseconds, while in an fMRI brain scanner. They needed to press a button whenever they saw a city scene (which occurred 90% of the time) and avoid pressing the button when a mountain scene appeared (the remaining 10%). Sometimes the trials were rewarded, In these cases participants earned 1 cent for each city scene they responded to, and 10 cents for not responding to a mountain scene. They were also penalized for getting it wrong. Other trials had no reward or penalty. The results of their brain activity showed that without the motivation of reward, the participants acted as “cognitive misers”: they didn’t bother engaging the brain’s attentional resources until their performance had dipped. [‘cognitive miser] is a term that has been used many times in this blog; enter “cognitive miser” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com to see how many times and where] Until, in other words, they had dropped out of the zone. When they were motivated by reward, however, the participants were “cognitive investors,” happy to engage their brain and concentrate in order to stay focused on the task.

In 2015, Yi-Yuan Tang, Michael Posner at the University of Oregon, and Britta Holzel at the Technical University of Munich published a review of the evidence in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. They concluded that more than twenty years of research into meditation supports the idea that it is beneficial for physical and mental health, and that it improves cognitive performance. Basically, it improves brain power.

Joshua Grant at the University of Montreal scanned the brains of Zen practioners who had racked up more than a thousand hours of practice. These seasoned meditators show less activity in a few areas of the the brain than non meditators: in the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. These are areas are respectively concerned with (among other things) awareness of pain, the processing of emotions such as fear, and memory storage. But some parts of the brain process pain were thicker in the meditators. There is no contradiction here: meditators process the pain but let it bother them less.

Meditative practice leads to changes in the structure of the brain. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the insula, a deep fold in the cerebral cortex, two areas of the brain known to be key to our ability to focus attention, both grow in people who meditate. These regions, along with parts of the front midline of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus, are activated during cognitive tasks. For example, the ACC aids in the maintenance of focus by preventing other systems of the brain from barging in and demanding attention. Hooper writes, “When we are performing tasks that have been practiced over and over such as adjusting the sails on a trimaran or changing gears in a racing car, the autonomic nervous system plays a big part in carrying them out. That’s the part of the nervous system that acts automatically, performing functions such as regulating the heart rate and digestion. When we are in an effortless state of flow this occurs below the level of conscious awareness, and the ACC and the insula together help the autonomic nervous system achieve it.

There is a very large number of posts on meditation in the healthy memory blog. Just enter “meditation” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com. It might be a good idea to first enter “relaxation response” as the relaxation response provides the entry into more advanced meditation techniques.

Ambiguous Anatomical Differences

January 18, 2020

This post is based on content in Gender and Our Brains by Gina Rippon, At first glance, nothing could be a clearer way of distinguishing the sexes than by anatomical differences. All one would need to do was to determine how the person urinated. Standing up, male, squatting or sitting down, female. An XX individual will have ovaries and a vagina; an XY individual will have testes and a penis. But there are individuals born with ambiguous gentalia or who later develop secondary sexual characteristics at odds with their assigned gender. These individuals were viewed as intersex anomalies or disorders of sex development (DSDs) requiring medical management, possibly including very early surgical interventions.

In a 2105 article in Nature by Claire Ainsworth called attention to the fact that sex can be more complicated than it at first seems. She found that individuals could have mixed sets of chromosomes (some cells XY, some XX). It was found that this was not a rare occurrence. The evidence that expression of the gonad-determining genes could continue postnatally undermined the concept of core physical sex differences being hardwired. This suggests that manifestations of biological sex occur on a spectrum, which would include both subtle and moderate variations, rather that as a binary divide.

In a 1993 article titled The Five Sexes Anne Faust-Sterling suggested that we need at least five categories of sex to cover intersex occurrences. She felt that this grouping should include males with testes and some female characteristics, and females with ovaries and some male characteristics, as well as “true” hermaphrodites, with one testes and one ovary. Some suggested that gender should not be determined by genitals, but certainly the existence of more than two categories (however defined) should be acknowledged.

Apart from ambiguous anatomical differences, there are behavioral and preference differences in homosexuality. Homosexuality is found across all cultures. What differs is the degree to which it is tolerated, persecuted, or accepted.

At one time it was thought that the hippocampus and the amygdala were larger in males than in females. Subsequent research has encouraged the revision of this position to one of there being no substantial differences when other factors are considered.

These comparisons occurred in a variety of areas and it became clear that there were neither black and white differences nor shades of gray. With further research the difference diminished and the dichotomies disappeared.

A Neurological Argument for Depth

October 19, 2019

This is the fifth post in a series of posts on book by Cal Newport titled “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World.” The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in this book. The science writer Winfred Gallagher stumbled onto a connection between attention and happiness after an unexpected and terrifying event. The event was a cancer diagnosis and Gallagher noted, “not just cancer, but a particularly nasty, fairly advanced kind.” In her book “Rapt” (there are many healthy memory blog posts on this book and on this topic) she recalls as she walked away from the hospital after the diagnosis she formed a sudden and strong intuition: “This disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead.” She focused on what was good in her life, “movies, walks, and a 6:30 martini” and it worked surprisingly well. Instead of being mired in fear and pity during this period, she was instead often quite pleasant.

After five years of science reporting she came away convinced that she was witness to a “grand unified theory” of the mind:

“Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics, and family counseling similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.”

Newport writes, “This concept upends the way most people think about their subjective experience of life. We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us (or fails to happen) determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren’t that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes, such as whether or not you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this misunderstanding. Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. If you focus on a cancer diagnosis, you and your life become unhappy and dark, but if you focus instead on an evening martini, you and your life become more pleasant—even though the circumstances in both scenarios are the same. As Gallagher summarizes: “What you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.’”

Research has shown that the elderly tend to be happier than their younger brethren. This seems paradoxical as the elderly are closer to their final exit; But Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen used an FMRI scanner to study the brain behavior of participants presented with both positive and negative imagery. She found that for young people, their amygdala, important for emotion, fired with activity at both types of imagery. But when she scanned the elderly, the amygdala fired only for the positive images. Carstensen conjectured that the elderly participants had trained their prefrontal cortex to inhibit the amygdala in the presence of negative stimuli. So these elderly participants were not happier because their life circumstances were better than those of the young subjects; instead they were happier because they had rewired their brains to ignore the negative and savor the positive. By skillfully managing their attention, they improved their world without changing anything concrete about it.

Author Newport picks up on Gallanger’s grand theory. “This theory states that your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to, so consider for a moment the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors. There’s a gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work.” Gallagher’s theory predicts that if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance. Newport adds a hidden but equally important benefit to cultivating rapt attention. Such concentration hijacks your attention apparatus, preventing you from noticing the many smaller and less pleasant things that unavoidably and persistently populate our lives.

Motivation: Eyes on the Prize

August 21, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. When you decide to lose weight we experience an interaction between attention and motivation. The term motivation comes from the Latin movere, meaning “to move.” Depending on our motivation, we may decide to wolf down a piece of pie or stick to a new low-carb diet. Once we choose our goal, our focus narrows, so that the pie a la mode or fitting into our jeans again dominates our mental landscape. Addiction is the most dramatic example when the motivation to get high restricts attention to the point that the drug seems like the most important thing in the world.

A Northwester University neuroscientist, Marsel Mesulam scanned the brains of research participants while they looked at images of tools and edibles after they had fasted for eight hours. Later, after feasting on their favorite goodies until full, they went back under the scanner to inspect the pictures again. When the twists of scans were compared, it was clear that the amygdala, a brain structure one of whose functions include gauging whether something is desirable or not, reacted more strongly to the images of foods when the subjects were hungry, but not to those of the tools. So depending on your motivation, a certain part of your brain can respond to the same visual experience in vastly different ways.

Obesity epidemics provide stunning illustrations of what can happen when motivation and attention become disconnected from daily behavior in general and each other in particular. Reasonable people would say that their nutritional goal is to stay healthy and eat right, many simply don’t focus on their food and how much they actually consume. In Mindless Eating, Cornell marketing and nutritional scientist Brian Lansink offers numerous examples of how this lack of focusing helps pile on the pounds. As if still motivated by childhood’s Clean Plate Award, moviegoers will gobble 53% more nasty, stale popcorn if it’s presented in a big bucket than they would if given a small one. A third of diners can’t remember how much bread they just ate. People who stack up their chicken-wing bones at the table will eat 28% fewer han those who clear the evidence away. We’ll snack on many more M&Ms if they’re arrayed in ten colors rather than seven. We consume 35% more food when dining with a friend—and 50% more with a big group—than when alone. Considering these statistics, it’s not surprising that simply by paying attention to your food and eating it slowly, you can cut 67 calories from each dinner and seven pounds in a year.

To reinforce the link between motivation and attention Gail Posner suggests “mindful eating.” Mindful eating involves focusing on our food—on its smell, taste, and feel—which lets your brain know that you will soon feel full and satisfied. The toughest dieting problem is the overeating that’s motivated by using food to fill an emotional hole caused by frustration, anger, or sadness. To focus on what’s really driving your desire to eat, Posner suggests placing your hands where you’re hungry. If you put them on your head, she says that your upset about something; on your mouth, you just want to taste something; on your stomach, you’re actually running on empty.
Duckworth’s important research on grit and motivation is discussed. But since there are at least a half dozen posts on this topic, it will not be discussed further here. Go to the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com to find these posts.

According to William James the idea of cultivating willpower is “the art of replacing one habit for another.” The author adds, “Through most of history, gluttony, concupiscence, drunkenness and sloth were regarded as vices rather than sicknesses, and replacing them with temperance, chastity, sobriety, and enterprise required an act of the will.

Outside In: What You See Is What You Get

August 12, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. There is impressive research that shows that “looking at the bright side,” even in tough situations, is a powerful predictor of a longer, happier, healthier life. In a large study of 941 Dutch subjects over ten years, the most upbeat individuals, who agreed with statements such as “often feel that life is full of promise,” were 45% less likely to die during the long experiment than were the most pessimistic.

Research reveals that the cognitive appraisal of emotions, pioneered by psychologists Magda Arnold and Richard Lazarus confirmed that what happens to us, from a blizzard to a pregnancy to a job transfer, is less important to our well-being than how we respond to it. Psychologist Barbara Fredickson says that if you want to get over a bad feeling, “focusing on something positive seems to be the quickest way to usher out the unwanted emotion.” This does not mean that when something upsetting happens, we should not immediately try to force ourselves to “be happy.” First, Fredrickson says you examine “the seed of emotion,” or how we honestly feel about what occurred. Then we direct our attention to some element of the situation that frames things in a more helpful light.

Unfortunately, people who are depressed and anhedonic—unable to feel pleasure—have particular trouble using this attentional self-help tactic. This difficulty suggests to Fredrickson that they suffer from a dearth of happiness rather than a surfeit of sadness: “It’s as if the person’s positive emotional systems have been zapped or disabled.”

With the exception of these anhedonic individuals, Fredrickson says, “Very few circumstances are one hundred percent bad.” Even in very difficult situations, she finds, it’s often possible to find something to be grateful for, such as others’ loving support, good medical care, or even our own values thoughts, and feelings. Focusing on such a benign emotion isn’t just a “nice thing to do,” but a proven way to expand our view of reality and lift our spirits, thus improving our ability to cope.

William James said wisdom is “the art of knowing what to overlook.” And many elders master this way of focusing. Many studies show that younger adults pay as much or more to negative information than to the positive sort. However, by middle age their focus starts to shift until in old age, they’re likely to have a strong positive bias in what they both attend to and remember.

Research has shown that older brains attend to and remember emotional stimuli differently from younger ones. In one study, compared to younger people, they remembered twice as many positive images as the negative or neutral sort. Moreover, when the experiment was repeated using fMRI brain scans, the tests showed that in younger adults, the emotional center, the amygdala, reacted to both positive and negative images, but in older adults, only in response to positive cues. The author suggests, “Perhaps because elders use the “smart” prefrontal cortex to dampen activity in the more volatile amygdala, their brains actually encode less negative information, which naturally reduces their recall of it and its impact on their behavior.

The final paragraph to this chapter follows: “WHATEVER YOUR TEMPERAMENT, living the focused life is not about trying to feel happy all the time, which would be both futile and grotesque. Rather, it’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grown there. Your ability to function comfortably in a dirty, germy world is just one illustration of your powerful capacity to put mind over matter and control you experience by shifting your focus from counterproductive to adaptive thoughts and feelings. In this regard, one reason why certain cultures venerate the aged for their wisdom is that elders tend to maximize opportunities to attend to the meaningful and serene, and to the possibility that, as E.M. Foster put it in A Room With a View, ”…by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes—a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.”

The Dark Side

March 9, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Goleman begins, “Psychologists use the phrase the dark triad to refer to narcissists, Machiavellians and sociopaths.” As for examples, look no further than President Trump. He has hit the trifecta here. Goleman continues, “These types represent the dark side of emotional intelligence: such people can be very good at cognitive empathy, but lack emotional empathy—not to mention empathic concern. For instance, by definition the sociopath does not care at all about human consequences of their manipulation, and has no regrets about inflicting cruelty. Their feelings of any kind are very shallow; brain imaging reveals a thinning of the areas that connect the emotional centers to the prefrontal cortex.”

Goleman outlines deficits in emotional intelligence. Sociopaths have deficits in several areas key to emotional intelligence: the anterior cingulate, the orbitofrontal cortex, the amygdala, and insula, and in the connectivity of these regions to other parts of the brain. It is possible that deficits such as these can account for much of Trump’s behavior.

Self-Mastery

February 27, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Self-awareness and self-management provide the basis for self-mastery. Competencies like managing emotions. focused drive to achieve goals, adaptability, and initiative are based on emotional self-management. These domains of skill are what make someone an outstanding individual performer in any domain of performance—and in business an outstanding individual contributor, or lone star.

Self-regulation of emotion and impulse relies on the interaction between the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive center, and the emotional center in the midbrain, particularly circuitry converging on the amygdala.

The prefrontal cortex is the key neural area for self-emulation. This area is guiding us when we are at our best. The dorsolateral zone of the prefrontal area is the seat of cognitive control, regulating attention, decision-making, voluntary action, reasoning, and flexibility in response.

The amygdala is a trigger point for emotional distress, anger, impulse, and fear. When this circuitry takes over, it leads us to take a actions we might regret later.

Dr. Goleman writes, “The interaction between these two neural areas creates a neural highway that, when in balance, is the basis for self-mastery. For the most part, we cannot dictate what emotions we are going to feel, when we’re going to feel them, not how strongly we feel them. They come unbidden from the amygdala and other subcortical areas. Our choice comes once we feel a certain way. What do we do then? How do we express it? If the our prefrontal cortex has its inhibitory circuits going full blast, we’ll be able to have a decision point that will make us more artful in guiding how we respond, and in turn how you drive other people’s emotions, for better or worse, in that situation. At the neural level, this is what ‘self-regulation’ means.

The amygdala is the brain’s radar for threat. Our brain was designed as a tool for survival. In the brain’s blueprint the amygdala holds a privileged position. If the amygdala detects a threat, in an instant it can take over the rest of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, and we have what is called an amygdala hijack.”

The hijack captures our attention and focuses it on the that at hand. If an amygdala hijack occurs at work, we can’t focus on what our job demands. We can only think about what’s troubling us. We remember most readily what’s relevant to the threat, and can’t remember other things well. We can’t learn during a hijack and we rely on over-learned habits, ways we’ve behaved time and time again. Innovation flexibility are not available during a hijack.

Neural imaging has shown that when someone is really upset the right amygdala is highly active, along with the right prefrontal cortex. The amygdala has captured the prefrontal cortex, hence amygdala hijack, driving it in terms of the imperatives of dealing with the perceived danger at hand. We get the classic fight-flight-or-freeze response when this alarm system triggers. From a brain point of view this means that the amygdala has set off the HPA axis (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis) releasing a flood of stress hormones, mainly cortisol and adrenaline.

Unfortunately, the amygdala often makes mistakes. While the amygdala gets its data on what we see and hear in a single neuron from the eye and ear, that’s super-fast in brain time, it only receives a small fraction of the signals those senses receive. The majority goes to other parts of the brain that take longer to analyzedthe inputs and get a more accurate reading. In contrast, the amygdala gets a sloppy picture and has to react instantly. Coleman writes, “It often makes mistakes, particularly in modern life, where the “dangers” are symbolic, not physical threats. So we overreact in ways we often regret later.”

Coleman identifies the five top amygdala triggers in the workplace:

Condescension and lack of respect.
Being treated unfairly.
Being underappreciated.
Feeling that you’re not being listened to or heard.
Being held to unrealistic deadlines.

Here are Goleman’s suggestions for minimizing hijacks. Pay attention. If you don’t notice that you’re in the midst of an amygdala hijack and stay carried by it, you have no chance of getting back to emotional equilibrium and left prefrontal dominance until you let the hijack run its course. It is better to realize what is going on and to disengage. The steps to ending or short-circuiting a hijack start with monitoring what’s going on in you own mind and brain, and noticing, “I’m really over-reacting,” or “I’m really upset now,” or “I’m starting to get upset.” It’s much better if you can notice familiar feelings tat a hijack is beginning—such as butterflies in your stomach, or whatever signals that might reveal you are in the cycle of a hijack. It is best to had it off to the bare beginning of a coming hijack.

And here is what Goleman recommends if we are caught in the grip of an amygdala hijack. First, you have to realize that you’re in one. Hijacks can last for seconds or minutes, or hours, or days or weeks. There are are lots of ways to get out of a hijack, if we can realize we’re caught and also have the intention to cool down. A cognitive approach is to talk yourself out of the hijack. Reason with our self, and challenge what you are telling your self in the highjack. For example, “This guy isn’t always an S.O.B. I can remember times when he was actually very thoughtful and even kind, so maybe I should give him another chance. Or you can apply some empathy and imagine yourself in that person’s position. This might work in those very common instances where the hijack trigger was something someone else did or said to us. You might have an empathic thought: Maybe he treated me that the way because he is under such great pressure.
There are also biological interventions. We can use a method like meditation or relaxation to calm down our body. But a relaxation or meditation technique works best during the hijack when you have practiced it regularly, at best daily. Unless these methods have become a strong habit of mind, you can’t just invoke them out of the blue. But a strong habit of calming the body with a well-practiced method can make a huge difference when you’er hijacked and need it most.

As readers should be aware that the healthymemory blog is a strong advocate of meditation and mindfulness, and there are many healthy memory blog posts on meditation and mindfulness.

The Creative Brain

February 26, 2019

The title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” The chapter begins,
“‘Right brain good, left brain bad.’ That belief about creativity and the right and left hemispheres of the brain dates back to the Seventies, and reflects a very outdated bit of neuromythology. The new understanding about left and right hemispheres is more specific to the topography of the brain: when it comes to left versus right, do you mean left front, left middle, left rear?”

The right hemisphere has more neural connections both within itself and through the brain. It has strong connections to emotional centers like the amygdala and to subcortical regions throughout the lower parts of the brain. The left side has far fewer connections with itself and beyond to the rest of the brain. The left hemisphere is made of neatly stacked vertical columns, which allow the clear differentiation of separate mental functions, but less integration of those functions. The right hemisphere is more of a mix structurally.

Brain studies on creativity reveal what goes on that “Aha!” moment, when we get a sudden insight. When EEG brain waves are measured during a creative moment, it turns out there is a very high gamma activity that spikes 300 milliseconds before the answer comes to us. This gamma activity indicates the acting together of neurons, as far-found brain cells connect in a new neural network as when a new association emerges. Immediately after that gamma spike, the new idea enters consciousness.

This heightened activity focuses on the temporal area, a center on the side of the right neocortex. This is the same brain area that interprets metaphor and gets jokes. This high gamma spike signals that the brain has a new insight. At that moment, right hemisphere cells are using these longer branches and connections to other parts of the brain. They’ve collected more information and put it together in a novel organization.

In spite of what you might have read or heard, there are two primary modes of creative thinking. The first is to concentrate intently on the goal or problem. The next stage is to let go. During this stage you are relaxing and letting your non conscious brain do its creative thing. This stage is characterized by a high alpha rhythm, which signals mental relaxation, a state of openness, or daydreaming and drifting, where we’re more receptive to new ideas. This sets the stage for novel connections that occur during the gamma spike. Of course, after that “aha moment” you need to return to concentration to evaluate the creative idea and asses how adequately it addresses the problem.

In all but rare cases, this is an iterative process. And this iterative process can occur over the course of years. There are documented cases of mathematicians trying to solve a problem. The problem appears to be intractable, because the “aha” moment never seems to come. But, sometimes it eventually appears seemingly from nowhere.
The name of this process is incubation, because you are not consciously trying to solve the problem. However, your non conscious mind has been working on this problem, perhaps even when you thought you were sleeping.

Goleman concludes the chapter with a final state, implementation. Here’s where a good idea will sink or swim. He remembers talking to the director of a huge research lab. He had about 4,000 scientists and engineers working for him. He told Goleman,”We have a rule about a creative insight: if somebody offers a novel idea, instead of the next person who speaks shooting it down—which happens all to often in organizational life—the next person who speaks must be an angel’s advocate someone who says, ‘that’s a good idea and here’s why.” Goleman writes, “Creative ideas are like a fragile bud—they’ve got to be nurtured so that they can blossom.”

Different creative people use different processes, so there is no optimal way of being creative. Each creative person creates her own creative process, which might even vary from problem to problem.

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights

February 24, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of another book by Daniel Goleman. The previous book on which many healthy memory blog posts were based was “Emotional Intelligence.” Emotional intelligence is by far our most important intelligence. Dr. Goleman writes, “In this book I want to provide new updates, sharing with you some key findings that further inform our understanding of emotional intelligence and how to apply this skill set.”

There is a brain basis for emotional intelligence. This comes from neural imaging and lesion studies. Neural imaging allows the identification of where the activity in the brain is occurring. Lesion studies are from injuries or surgeries done on parts of the brain to see what functions are lost.

The right amygdala (there are two, one in each brain hemisphere) is a neural hub for emotion located in the midbrain. Patients with lesions or other injuries to the right amygdala showed a loss of emotional self-awareness—the ability to be aware of an understand our own feelings.

Another area crucial for emotional intelligence is also in the right side of the brain. It’s the right somatosensory cortex; injury here also creates a deficiency in self awareness, as well as empathy, the awareness of emotion in other people. The ability to understand and feel our emotion is critical for understanding and empathizing with the emotions of others. Empathy also depends on another structure in the right hemisphere, the insula, that senses our entire bodily state and tells us how we’re feeling. Tuning in to how we’re feeling ourselves plays a central role in how sense and understand what some else is feeling.

Another critical area is the anterior cingulate, which is located at the front of a band of nerve fibers that surround the corpus callosum, which ties together the two halves of the brain. The anterior cingulate is an area that manages impulse control, which is the ability to handle to handle our emotions, particularly distressing emotions and strong feelings.

Finally, there is the ventral medial strip of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is just behind the forehead, and is the last part of the brain to become fully grown. This is the brain’s executive center; the abilities of solve personal and interpersonal problems, to manage our impulses, to express our feelings effectively and to relate well to others resides here.

When writing this HM wondered if deficiencies in these areas might, in part, explain Trump’s bullying, callous, and impulsive behavior. Perhaps such deficiencies might also explain his difficulties in keeping and recruiting staff.

Goleman’s Model of Emotional Intelligence has the following four generic domains: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Self awareness plays into both social awareness and self management. Social awareness and self management play into relationship management. And it is relationship management that has a positive impact on others.

The Damage Done by Forcibly Separating Children from Parents

June 19, 2018

Please excuse this interruption in the series of the posts on “The Upside of Stress” (between the 11th and 10th Posts), but current events justify this interruption. There have been a number of healthy memory posts stressing the importance of mothers loving their children and the damage done by indifferent mothers. The notion advanced by HM is that that most of the negative incidents typically reported in the news probably are the result of children who lacked a loving mother. The forceful separation of children that is now occurring at our current borders is even worse. This current post is based primarily on an article by William Wan in the 19 June 2018 issue of the Washington Post titled “When children are forcibly separated from parents, ‘‘The effect is catastrophic.’”

Here is what happens inside children when they are forcibly separated from their parents. Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones can start killing off dendrites, which are the little branches in brain cells that transmit messages. Eventually this stress can start killing off neurons and, especially in young children, wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychological and to the physical structure to the brain.

A pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School said, “The effect is catastrophic, There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science they would never do this.”

This is why pediatricians, psychologists, other health experts, as well as other caring human beings, have been led to vehemently oppose the Trump administration’s new border crossing policy, which has separated more than 2,000 immigrant children from their parents in recent weeks.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association have all issued statements representing more than 250,000 doctors in the United States against this new, intolerable policy. Nearly 7,700 mental health professionals and 142 organizations have also signed a petition urging Trump to end the policy. The petition reads, “To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma,” the petition reads.

Nelson has studied the neurological damage from child-parent separation, work which he has said has reduced him to tears. In 2000 the Romanian government invited Nelson and a team of researchers into its state orphanages to advise them on a humanitarian crisis created by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s policies.

At these orphanages, Nelson said, “we saw kids rocking uncontrollably and hitting themselves, hitting their heads against walls. They had to make up a rule as researchers that they would never cry in front of children. As the children grew older Nelson and his colleagues began finding disturbing differences in their brains. Those separated from their parents at a young age had much less white matter, which is largely made up of fibers that transmit information throughout the brain, as well as much less gray matter, which contains the brain-cell bodies that process information and solve problems. The activity in the children’s brains was much lower than expected. Nelson said, “it’s as though here was a dimmer than had reduced them from a 100-watt bulb to 30 watts.”

The children, who had been separated from their parents in their first two years of life, scored significantly lower on IQ tests later in life. Their fight-or-flight response system appeared permanently broken. Stressful situations that would usually prompt physiological responses in other people, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, would provoke nothing in the children.

What alarmed the researchers most was the duration of the damage. Unlike other parts of the body, most cells in the brain cannot renew or repair themselves.

“The reason child-parent separation has such devastating effects is because it attacks one of the most fundamental and critical bonds in human biology.

From the time they are born, children emotionally attach to their caregiver and vice versa, said Lisa Fortuna, medical director for child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center. Skin-to-skin contact for newborns, for example, is critical to their development, research shows. ‘Our bodies secrete hormones like oxytocin on contact that reinforces the bond, to help us attach and connect,’ Fortuna said.

A child’s sense of what safety means depends on that relationship. And, without it, the parts of the brain that deal with attachment and fear, the amygdala and hippocampus, develop differently. The reason such children often develop PTSD later in life is that these neurons start firing irregularly. ‘The part of their brain that sorts things into safe or dangerous doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. Things that are not threatening, seem threatening.’

Research on Aboriginal children in Australia who were removed from their families also showed long-lasting effects. They were nearly twice as likely to be arrested or criminally charged as adults, 60% more likely to have alcohol abuse problems and more than twice as likely to struggle with gambling.

In China, where 1 in 5 children live in villages without their parents, who migrate for work, studies have shown that those ‘left behind’ children have markedly higher rates of anxiety and depression later in life.

Other studies have shown separation leading to increased aggression, withdrawal and cognitive difficulties.

Luis H. Mayas, a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas said “if you take the moral, spiritual, even political aspect out of it, from a strictly medical and scientific point of view what we as a country are doing to these children at the border is unconscionable . The harm our government is now causing will take a lifetime to undo.’”

The justification provided by several in the Trump administration was that they were enforcing the law. This is reminiscent of Nazis running the concentration camps killing jews claiming that they were only following orders.

Remember that at Charlottesville Trump was given several opportunities to denounce the nazi demonstrators. HIs lack of response was understandable when one considers that nazis are part of Trump’s base.

Unconscious Hate

May 31, 2018

Mahatma Gandhi: If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

This is the fourth chapter in The OPPOSITE of HATE: A Field Guide to Repairing our humanity by Sally Kohn. HM has come to the firm conclusion that human cognition needs to be taught in the public schools, continuing in elementary school through high school. The reason we do and believe things, unconscious hate among them, is that we are unaware of our nonconscious processing. That is thoughts of which we are unaware but influence what we think and how we act. Moreover, most people think that bias is bad, something to be avoided. The reality is that we receive much more information than we can process. So to select the information that we can process we need to be biased. Heuristics are beneficial biases we employ to process information.

Ms. Kohn writes, “..I don’t think that the vast majority of Americans—right, left, and center—are deliberate explicit bigots. But I do think all of us need to come to terms with the fact that we all hold unconscious ideas about the superiority of some groups and the interiority of others—ideas that may not be expressed like they were in 1950s Virginia but that come from the same history and hateful legacy. And when I say all of us, I really do mean everyone. Myself included. And you, too. “

Research in both neuroscience and psychology can explain why. A professor of neuroscience at the University of Chicago, Jennifer Kubota, has focused her research on implicit bias and the brain. Her research explains how stereotypes are recorded in the brain. It involves a structure in the brain with which healthy memory blog readers should be familiar. There is an amygdala on each side of the center of the brain. The amygdala is involved in the processing of emotions including fear. There is no one “center’ of emotion. The amygdala is involved “in learning about important or threatening or novel things in our environment. When we need it, the amygdala quickly recalls what’s been learned so we can just as quickly evaluate whatever situation we’re in and respond accordingly. The amygdala can be thought of as an efficient filing cabinet for everything society has taught that our brains have absorbed. The amygdala takes in whatever messages that are around it—including the endemic racial stereotypes—that percolate through the media and our education practices and our families and every other single aspect of our existence. In other words, biases are stuck in society’s system and, in turn, get stuck in all of our brains—particularly in our amygdalae. The amygdala doesn’t mean to be hateful. It learns to hate from a hateful society.

john a. powell, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley has extensively studied the research on implicit bias. He says the nonconscious “makes associations based on frequency.” So, for instance, because the news overreport black crime, at an nonconscious level we’ll create a neural linkage between crime and black—whether or not we even personally, consciously believe blacks are more or less likely to commit crime. Implicit biases are like projections of society’s biases etched into our unconscious. It happens to all of us. “It’s the air we breathe,” says powell. “You breathe that until you’re an adult, you’re going to have those associations. Whites will have them. Blacks will have them. Latinos will have them.”

New York University neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps and her research team conducted a study in 2000 that identified the neural signature of negative stereotypes. The amygdala is activated more when subjects are shown photos of people with fearful facial expressions than when they are presented with photos of people with neutral expressions. This detection of danger, which in turn helps trigger fear, is one of the most well-established functions of the amygdala, and neuroscientists have long believed that greater amygdala activation is due to a greater perceived threat. Phelp’s research team hooked subjects up to an fMRI machine and then flashed random yearbook photos of white people and black people, all of whom had neutral facial expressions; none were fearful. The majority of white subjects showed greater amygdala activation when viewing unfamiliar black compared to familiar white faces. In other words, seeing unfamiliar black faces triggered fear. Phelps and her team then compared the same people’s amygdala activation to their scores on an implicit bias assessment, which they’d taken before the fMRI study. They found that the more implicit bias people had, the more their amygdala lit up.

This implicit associative test, developed by Dr. Anthony Greenwald, has been discussed in previous healthy memory blog posts. You can take this test yourself. Go to
https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

A great deal of research has revealed the pernicious effects of implicit bias in people’s lives. As john a. powell along with a group of other researchers wrote in a comprehensive report that summarized this work, titled “The Science of Equality”, “studies have shown that bias is operating in our schools, our business offices, our medical institutions, and in our criminal justice system.” This research is too voluminous to review and do justice to in this blog post.

One can argue that explicit bias, bias which is intended, is worse than implicit bias. But what matters most is impact—which can be just as pernicious whether rooted in implicit bias or explicit hate. Undetected hate hiding in our brains is still hate. Ms. Kohn writes, “Just like a little cancer is still cancer. You don’t want even a smidgen inside you.”

Fortunately, there is increasing evidence that interventions work. Ms. Kohn calls this “connection-thinking”— the conscious effort to neutralize the stereotypes embedded in our amygdalae. This is generally called “debiasing” and it is getting promising results.

Susan Fiske conducted an experiment that tried a simple strategy to erase people’s bias. When Fiske showed pictures of unknown black faces to white participants, their amygdala activity predictably spiked. But when Fiske instructed the research subjects to guess the favorite vegetable of the people in the pictures, their amygdala activation remained the same, whether they were shown pictures of white people or black people. So just thinking about what vegetable these unknown folks might enjoy, and having to engage in the process of trying to take the perspective of the other, was enough to break down bias.

Phelps and her team did another experiment in which they showed white subjects the faces of well-liked famous people, both white and black. This time their amygdala activation was significantly lower. In other words, just knowing people, just having more real-life exposure to “others” changes the way our brains activate in response. Ms. Kohn concludes, “That’s more great support for the importance of creating more connection-spaces that then help foster connection-thinking.”

Here’s another study that shows promising signs that if we will acknowledge that we have implicit bias, we can consciously train our minds to disregard it. Salma Handler and other neuroscientists at Tel Aviv University hooked subjects up to a fancy computer that allowed them to monitor their fMRI results themselves, watching in real time as their amygdala activation rates were being tested. With a little bit of coaching and a lot of encouragement, when they were shown stimuli that were meant to trigger their fear mechanisms and at the same time were shown a screen where their amygdalae were lighting up, people could deliberately lower their amygdalae stimulation. Just getting that feedback helped people regulate their own unconscious mental processes.

According to Yudkin and Van Bavel, “Acknowledging the truth about ourselves—that we see and think about the world through the lens of group affiliations—is the first step to making things better.” Ms. Kohn concludes, “So the answer isn’t to ignore biases, as with arguments about “colorblindness” or attacks on identity politics, but rather to acknowledge them and keep working at consciously countering them. We’re not going to change our stereotyped thinking overnight, and we certainly won’t change it longterm simply because we imagine someone’s favorite vegetable. But with concerted effort over time, we can make great headway.”

Trauma and Emotional Relearning

March 21, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” The primary topic of this chapter is the frequently discussed and written about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a disorder of the limbic system. The main symptoms of such learned fearfulness, including the most intense kind, can be accounted for by changes in the limbic circuitry focusing on the amygdala. Some key changes are in the locus ceruleus, a structure that regulates the brain’s secretion of two substances called catecholamines: adrenaline and noradrenaline. The neurochemicals mobilize the body for any emergency; the same catecholamine surge stamps memories with special strength. This system becomes hyperactive in PTSD, secreting extra-large doses of these brain chemicals in response to situations that hold little or no threats, but somehow are reminders of the original trauma.

The locus ceruleus and the amygdala are closely linked, along with other limbic structures such as the hippocampus and hypothalamus; the circuitry for the catecholamines extends into the cortex. Changes in the circuits are thought to underlie PTSD symptoms, which include anxiety, fear, hyper vigilance, being easily upset and aroused, readiness for fight or flight, and the indelible encoding of intense emotional memories. One study found that Vietnam vets with PTSD had 40% fewer catecholamine-stopping receptors than did men without the symptoms, suggesting that their brains had undergone a lasting change, with their catecholamine secretion poorly controlled.

Other changes occur in the circuit linking the limbic brain with the pituitary gland, which regulates the release of CRF, the main stress hormone the body secretes to mobilize the emergency fight-or-flight response. The changes lead this hormone to be overselected—particularly in the amygdala, hippocampus and locus ceruleus—alerting the body for an emergency that is not there in reality.

A third set of changes occurs in the brain’s opiod system, which secretes endorphins to blunt the feeling of pain. It also becomes hyperactive. This neural circuit again involves the amygdala, this time in concert with a region in the cerebral cortex. The opioids are powerful numbing agents, like opium and other narcotics that are chemical cousins. When experiencing high levels of opioids, people have a heightened tolerance for pain.

Something similar seems to occur in PTSD. Endorphin changes add a new dimension to the neural mix triggered by preexposure to trauma: a numbing of certain feelings. This seems to explain a set of “negative” psychological symptoms long noted in PTSD: anhedonia and a general emotional numbness, a sense of being cut off from life or from concern about others’ feelings. Those close to such people may experience this indifference as a lack of empathy. Another possible effect may be dissociation, which includes the inability to remember crucial minutes, hours, or even days of the traumatic event.

The neural changes of PTSD also seem to make a person more susceptible to further traumatizing. A number of studies with animals have found that when they were exposed even to mild stress when young, they were far more vulnerable than unstressed animals to trauma -induced brain changes later in life. This seems to be a reason that, exposed to the same catastrophe, one person goes on to develop PTSD, and another does not: the amygdala is primed to find danger, and when life presents it once again wth real danger, the alarm rises to a higher pitch.

All these neural changes offer short-term advantages for dealing with the the grim and dire angers that prompt them. However, these short-term advantages become a lasting problem when the brain changes so that they become predispositions, like a car stuck in high gear. The amygdala and its connected brain regions take on a new set point during a moment of intense trauma.

Dr. Judith Lewis Herman is a Harvard psychiatrist whose groundbreaking work outlines the steps to recovery from trauma. The first step is regaining a sense of safety, presumably translates to finding ways to calm the too-fearful, too easily triggered emotions circuits enough to allow relearning. Typically this begins with helping parties understand that their jumpiness and nightmares, hyper vigilance and panics, are part of the symptoms of PTSD. The understanding makes the symptoms themselves less frightening.

The sense in which PTSD patients feel “unsafe” goes beyond fears that dangers lurk all around them: their insecurity begins more intimately in the feeling that they have no control over what is happening in their body and to their emotions. This is understandable, given the hair-trigger for emotional hijacking that PTSD creates by hyper sensitizing the amygdala circuitry.

Medication offers some way to restore patients’ sense that they need not be so at the mercy of the emotional alarms that flood them with anxiety, keep them sleepless, or pepper their sleep with nightmares. Unfortunately, today’s medications preclude doing exactly what they would like to achieve. For now, there are medications that counter only some of the needed changes, notably the antidepressants that act on the serotonin system and beta-blockers like propanol, which block the activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

Patients also may learn relaxation techniques that give them the ability to counter their edginess and nervousness. A physiological calm opens a window for helping the brutalized emotional circuitry rediscover that life is not a threat and for giving back to patients some of the sense of security they had in their lives before the trauma occurred.

Another step in healing involves retelling and reconstructing the story of the trauma in the harbor of that safety, allowing the emotional circuitry to acquire a new, more realistic understanding of and response to the traumatic memory and its triggers. As patients retell the horrific details of the trauma, the memory starts to be transformed, both in its emotional meaning and in its effects on the emotional brain. The pace of this retelling is delicate; ideally it mimics the pace that occurs naturally in those people who are able to recover from trauma without suffering PTSD. In these cases there often seems to be an inner close that “doses” people with intrusive memories that relive the trauma, intercut with weeks or months when they remember hardly anything of the horrible events.

To summarize, psychotherapy serves as an emotion tutorial.

Harmonizing Emotions and Thought

March 10, 2018

The title of this section is identical to the title of a section in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” The hub of the battles or cooperative treaties struck between head and heart, thought and feeling are the connections between the amygdala (and related limbic structures) and the neocortex. This circuitry explains why emotion is so crucial to effective thought, both with respect to thinking clearly and in making wise decisions.

Working memory is the memory we hold in conscious thought. The prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for working memory. However, circuits from the limbic brain to the prefrontal lobes mean that the signals of strong emotion—anxiety, anger, and the like—can create neural static, sabotaging the ability of the prefrontal lobe to maintain working memory. This is why we say we “can’t think straight” when we are emotionally upset. Continual emotional distress can create deficits in a child’s intellectual abilities, and cripple the capacity to learn.

If subtle, these deficits are not always tapped by IQ testing. However, they do show up through more targeted neuropsychological measures, as well as in the child’s continual agitation and impulsivity. In one study, primary school boys with above-average IQ scores we still doing poorly in school. Neuropsychological tests found that they had impaired frontal cortex functioning. They were impulsive and anxious, often disruptive and in trouble. This suggested faulty prefrontal control over their limbic urges. In spite of their intellectual potential, they were at highest risk for problems like academic failure, alcoholism, and criminality—not because their intellect is deficient, but because their control over their emotional life is impaired. The emotional brain controls rage and compassion alike. These emotional circuits are sculpted by experience throughout childhood. We leave those experience utterly to chance at our peril.

Dr. Antonia Damaiso, a neurologist at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, has made careful studies of just what is impaired in patients with damage to the prefrontal-amygdala circuit. Their decision-making ability is terribly flawed. Still they show no deterioration at all in IQ or in cognitive ability. In spite of their intact intelligence, they make disastrous choices in business and their personal lives. They can even obsess endlessly over a decision so simple as when to make an appointment.

Dr. Damaiso argues that their decisions are bad because they have lost access to their emotional learning. The prefrontal-amygdala circuit is a crucial doorway to the repository of the likes and dislikes we acquire over the course of a lifetime. Cut off from emotional memory in the amygdala, whatever the neocortex mulls over no longer triggers the emotional reactions that have been associated with it in the past. Be it a favorite pet or a detested acquaintance, the stimulus no longer triggers either attraction or aversion. These patients have “forgotten” all such emotional lessons because they no longer have access to where they are stored in the amygdala.

This research has lead Dr. Damasio to the counter-intuitive position that feelings are typically indispensable for rational decisions; they point us in the proper direction, where dry logic can then be of best use.

So it is a mistake to do away with emotion and put reason in its place, as Erasmus recommended. We need to find the intelligent balance between the two. The old paradigm held an ideal of reason freed from the pull of emotion. The new paradigm urges us to harmonize head and heart. And to do that well in our lives means we must first understand what it means to use emotion intelligently.

The Seat of all Passions

March 9, 2018

The title of this post is the title of a section in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” In humans the amygdala (from the Greek word for “almond’) is an almond -shaped cluster of interconnected clusters perched above the brainstem, near the bottom of the limbic ring. There are two amygdalae, one on each side of the brain nested toward the side of the head. Our amygdalae are relatively large compared to that of any of our closest evolutionary cousins, the primates.

The amygdalae and the hippocampi (there is also a hippocampus on each side of our brains) were the two key parts of the primitive “nose brain” that gave rise to the cortex and the neocortex. These limbic structures do much or most of the brain’s learning and remembering; the amygdalae is the specialist for emotional matters. If the amygdalae is severed from the rest of the brain, the result is a striking inability to gauge the emotional significance of events; this condition is sometimes called “affective blindness.”

Here please indulge a digression by HM to one of the projects he did as a graduate student. It involved conducting surgeries and implanting electrodes into the amygdalae of rats. These rats were deprived of water for 24 hours and then given an opportunity to drink. An electric current was applied to the amygdalae of some rats when they drank the water. The control rats were not shocked. The following day, the rats that had been shocked refused to drink, whereas the control rats, of course, drank. If you find this study troublesome, so does HM. But it did provide definitive evidence regarding the role of the amygdalae.

A fellow human had his amygdalae surgically removed to control severe seizures. He became completely uninterested in people, preferring to sit in isolation with no human contact. Although perfectly capable of conversation, he no longer recognized close friends, relatives, or even his mother, and remained impassive in the face of their anguish at his indifference. Absent the amygdalae, all recognition of feeling as well as any feeling about feelings is lost. Life without the amygdalae is life stripped of personal meanings.

All passion depends on the amygdalae. Animals that have their amygdalae removed or severed lack fear and rage, lose the urge to compete or cooperate, and no longer have any sense of their place in their kind’s social order; emotion is blunted or absent. As the amygdalae were not destroyed in HM’s rats, the stimulated rats returned to normal.

Tears, an emotional signal unique to humans, are triggered by the amygdala and a nearby structure, the cingulate gyrus. Being held, stroked, or otherwise comforted soothes these same brain regions, and stops the sobbing. Absent amygdalae, there are no tears of sorrow to soothe.

Goleman writes, “the workings of the amygdala and its interplay with the neocortex are at the heart of emotional intelligence. When impulsive feeling overrides the rational—the newly discovered role for the amygdala is pivotal. Incoming signals from the senses let the amygdala scan every experience for trouble. This puts the amygdala in a powerful position in mental life, something like a psychological sentinel, challenging every situation, every perception, with but one question in mind, the most primitive: “Is this something I hate? That hurts me? Something I fear?” If so—if the moment at hand somehow draws a “Yes”—the amygdala reacts instantaneously, line a neural tripwire, telegraphing a message of crisis to all parts of the brain.”

“When it sounds an alarm, it sends urgent messages to every major part of the brain: it triggers the secretion of the body’s fight-or-flight hormones, mobilizes the centers for movement and activates the cardiovascular system, the muscles, and the gut. Other circuits from the amygdala signal the secretion of emergency dollops of the hormone norepinephrine to heighten the reactivity of key brain areas, including those that made the senses more alert, in effect setting the brain on edge. Additional signals from the amygdala tell the brainstem to fix the face in a fearful expression, freeze unrelated movements the muscles had underway, raise heart rate and blood pressure, slow breathing. Others rivet attention on the source of the fear, and prepare the muscles to react accordingly. Simultaneously, cortical memory systems are shuffled to retrieve any knowledge relevant to the emergency at hand, taking precedence over other strands of thought.”

The extensive web of neural connections of the amygdalae allows them, during an emotional emergency, to capture and drive much of the rest of the brain—including the rational mind.

Research by LeDoux showed that sensory signals from the eye or ear travel first in the brain to the thalamus, and then—across a single synapse—to the amygdala; a second signal from the thalamus is routed to the neocortex—the thinking brain. So the amygdala can respond before the neocortex, which mulls information though several levels of brain circuits before it fully perceives and finally initiates its more finely tailored response.

LeDoux concluded, “Anatomically the emotional system can act independently of the neocortex. Some emotional reactions and emotional memories can be formed without any conscious cognitive participation at all.” LeDoux conducted an experiment in which people acquired a preference for oddly shaped geometric figures that had been flashed at them so quickly that they had no conscious awareness of having seen them at all. Nevertheless, our cognitive unconscious will still have formed an opinion as to whether we like it or not, not just the identity of what we’ve seen. Goleman notes that “our emotions have a mind of their own, one which can hold view quite independently of our rational mind.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. 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.

Primed for Love

December 1, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Goleman and Richardson’s book, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” Learning about compassion does not necessarily increase compassionate behavior. From empathizing with someone suffering to actually reaching out to help, loving-kindness/compassion meditation increases the odds of helping. There are three forms of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and empathic concern. People frequently empathize emotionally with someone’s suffering but then tune out to soothe their own uncomfortable feeling. However, compassion meditation enhances empathic concern, activates circuits for good feelings and love, as well as circuits that register the suffering of others, and prepares a person to act when suffering is encountered. Compassion and loving-kindness increase amygdala activation to suffering while focused attention on something neutral like the breath lessons amygdala activity. Loving-kindness acts quickly, in as little as eight hours of practice; reductions in usually intractable unconscious bias emerge after just sixteen hours. The longer people practice, the stronger these brain and behavioral tendencies toward compassion become. The authors conjecture that the strength of these effects from the early days of meditation may signal our biological preparedness for goodness.

A description of loving kindness meditation can be found in the previous healthy memory blog post SPACE. More will be written about loving kindness meditation later in this series of posts.

A Mind Undisturbed

November 30, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Goleman and Richardson’s book, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” A key node in the brain’s stress circuitry, the amygdala, shows dampened activity from just thirty or so hours of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) (enter MBSR into the search box of the Healthymemory Blog to learn more about MBSR). Other mindfulness training shows a similar benefit, and there are hints the these changes are trait like: they appear not simply during the explicit instruction to receive the stressful stimuli mindfully but even in the “baseline” state, with reductions in amygdala activation as much as 50%. More daily practice seems to be associated with lessened stress reactivity. Experienced Zen practitioners can withstand higher levels of pain and still have less reaction to this stressor. A three-month meditation retreat brought indicators of better emotional regulation, and long-term practice was associated with greater functional connectivity between the prefrontal areas that manage emotion and the areas of the amygdala that react to stress, resulting in less reactivity. An improved ability to regulate attention accompanies some of the beneficial impact of meditation on stress reactivity. And finally, the quickness with which long-term meditators recover from stress underlines how trait effects emerge with continued practice.

Super-you: Use Your Better Instincts to Crush Your Inner Bigot

December 14, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This instincts piece is written by Caroline Williams.  HM does not like this use of the word “instincts.”  “Predisposing biases” would have been a more fortunate choice.  However, this article accounts for much of the ugliness prevalent throughout the world.  The quick explanation is that these people are in their default mode of feeling and thinking.  But this is a very low level of thinking.  It is System 1 processing using Kahmeman’s terms.

The unpalatable truth is that we are biased, prejudiced and racist.   We put people into mental boxes marked “us” and them”.  Implicitly we like, respect and trust people who are similar to us and feel uncomfortable around everyone else.  This tendency towards in-group favoritism is so ingrained that we often don’t realize we are doing it.  “It is an evolutionary hangover affecting how the human brain responds to people it perceives as different.

A study from 2000 found that just showing participants brief flashes of faces of people of a different race was enough to activate the amygdala (Neuroreport 11(11):2351-5, September 2000 can be found at researchgate.net).  HM readers should know that the amygdala is a key component of the brain’s fear circuitry.  But the amygdala doesn’t just control fear; it responds to many things and calls on other brain areas to pay attention.   Although we’re not automatically scared of people who are not like us, we are hardwired to flag them.  As Williams notes, “evolutionarily, that makes sense:  It paid to notice when someone from another tribe dropped by.”

When Susan Fiske of Princeton University scanned volunteers’ brains as they looked at pictures of homeless people, she found that the prefrontal cortex, which is activated when we think about other people, stayed quiet.  Apparently these volunteers seemed to process these homeless people as subhuman (Social cognitive ad affective neuroscience, 2007 Mar. 2(1) 45-51.)

Fiske says “The good news is that his hard-wired response can be overcome depending on context.”  In both the homeless study and a rerun of the amygdala study Fiske found that fear or indifference quickly disappeared when participants were asked questions about what kind of food the other person might enjoy,   Fiske continues, “As soon as you have a basis for dealing with a person as an individual, the effect is not there.”

What we put in “them” and “us” boxes is flexible.  Jay Van Bavel of New York University created in-groups including people from various races, participants still preferred people in their own group, regardless of race.  It seems that all you have to do to head off prejudice is to convince people that they are on the same team (Pers Soc Psychol Bull, December 2012, 38, 12, 2012  1566-1578. pop.sagepub.com).

It appears that we are instinctively cooperative when we don’t have time to think about it.  Psychologist David Rand of Yale University asked volunteers to play gambling games in which they could choose to be selfish, or corporate with other players or a slightly lower, but shared, payoff.  When pressed to make a decision people were much more likely to cooperate than when given time to mull it over.

Williams concludes her article thusly:  “So perhaps you’re not an asshole after all—If you know when to stop to think about it and when to go with your gut.  Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the world.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Can You Remember Things that Never Happened?

March 24, 2016

This post is based largely on portions of the fourth chapter in Elixir J. Sternberg’s Book “Neurologic and the Brain’s idea Rationale Behind Our Irrational Behavior.” The title of this post is the same as the title of Chapter 4.  Regular readers of the health memory blog should know the answer to the question posed in the title.  The answer is “yes.”  Elizabeth Loftus and others have done extensive research in this area.  They have a variety of methodologies for implanting false memories so that they are definitely believed.  I saw an example of one of these experiments on the PBS program NOVA.  In this case the research participants were convinced of a crime that they never had committed.  To find previous posts on this topic enter “Loftus” into the search block of the healthy memory blog.

Sternberg begins the chapter with a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez that largely captures the workings of our memories.  “He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

A research group in Israel filmed a young woman, with no history of memory problems for two days straight.  Except for the cameras they were ordinary days.  At various intervals over the next few years she filled out questionnaires that tested her memories of those days.  The researchers used fMRI while she was filling out these questionnaires.  Over time the more distorted her memory became for the details.  What was especially interesting was how her brain activity changed over time while filling out the recall questionnaires.  As time passed and the memory errors accumulated, her memory appeared to be less endless reliant on the activity of the hippocampus.  The fMRI revealed reduced activation there as her recollection became more distant.  Other regions of the brain, including the medial prefrontal cortex and associated regions, became more and more active.  The medial prefrontal cortex is associated with self-centered thinking.  Her memory was accessing not simply a record from a neurological file, but a representation stored across multiple systems.  Her memory drifted away from accurately recording the details of that time period and instead became focused on her.

“To a large extent, our memories define us.  Our personal history forges our self-image and assembles our store of knowledge.  When the unconscious system in the brain encodes our memories, it is shaping who we are.  It doesn’t record our experiences impartially as a video camera would, because it focuses on our role in the story, on the aspects that we care about.   At any given moment, there is a context of how we are feeling, our emotions at that instant, what we are expecting or dreading, and what that moment means to us.  It is on that basis that the brain begins to compose its first draft.”

Three years after 9/11, two groups of New York City residents were enrolled in an experiment to learn how their emotions at the time of the attacks might have affected their memory.  The first group of people who were in downtown Manhattan that day close to the World Trade Center, and who personally witnessed the events of that day,  The second group consisted of people who were in midtown several miles away.  As would be expected, the downtown group rated their memories as being more vivid, more complete, and more emotional instances that the midtown group did.  And they had more confidence in the accuracy of their memories, but the neurological results revealed a different story.

The hippocampus is the area key to episodic memory, of which recalling 9/11 is a conspicuous example, but depending on the type of memory being accessed, other areas of the brain may be recruited to varying degrees.  For example, the amygdala may be activated when the memory is of an emotional nature, and the posterior parahippocampal cortex will become more involved when the brain attempts to access the more meticulous spatial details surrounding the event.  The members of the midtown group showed activation of the posterior  parahippocampal cortex as they recalled the details of 9/11, but only trivial amygdala activity.  It was just the opposite for the downtown group.  They exhibited striking activity in the amygdala but not in the posterior parahippocampal cortex.  This neuroimaging suggests that the downtown group recalled the events of the day for their emotional impact at the expense of remembering peripheral details.  Studies have revealed that the more emotionally  affected people are in recalling 9/11, the better they are at consistently describing the central events of what happened to them that day, but the worse they are at providing reliable description of the emotionally  neutral details.

There is a technical difference between telling a lie and confabulation.  A person telling a lie knows that he is telling a lie.  However, a person confabulating is trying to make a coherent story where substantial memory loss has occurred.  The chapter begins and ends with a man with both severe mental and addiction problems and a faulty memory.  He continually tries to put together a coherent story from the scraps of memory he can access, because he does not want to admit that he does not know.  Although his is a clinical case, we all work to make coherent stories from what memories we can find.  The unconscious system takes a self-centered egocentric approach to construct good narratives.

Creative Time

December 27, 2014

Creative Time is another section in the chapter Organizing Our Time in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. The section begins with a discussion of creativity and insight. We’ll skip this as many posts were written about insight fairly recently. Then he moves on to the topic of flow. Although flow has been discussed previously in this blog, it is an important enough topic and Levitin does provide some new information. Flow refers to the experience of getting wonderfully, blissfully lost in an activity losing all track of time, of ourselves, our problems. Flow is the sixth principle of contemplative computing as formulated by Dr.Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in his book The Distraction Addiction (you can use the search box to find these posts). The phenomena of flow were identified and discussed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced MEE-high, CHEECH-sent-mee-high). It feels like a completely different state of being, a state of heightened awareness coupled with feelings of well-being and contentment. Flow states appear to activate the same regions of the brain, including the left prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia. Two key regions deactivate during flow: the portion of the prefrontal cortex responsible for self-criticism, and the brain’s fear center, the amygdala.

Flow can occur during either the planning or he execution phase of an activity, but it is most often associated with the execution of a complex task, such as playing a solo on a musical instrument, writing an essay or shooting baskets. A lack of distractability characterizes flow. A second characteristic of flow is that we monitor our performance without the kinds of self-defeating negative judgments that often accompany creative work. When we’re not in flow, a nagging voice inside our head often says, “It’s not good enough.” In flow, a reassuring voice says, “we can fix that.”

Flow is a Goldilocks experience. The task cannot be too easy or too difficult, it has to be at just the right level. It takes less energy to be in flow than to be distracted. This is why flow states are characterized by great productivity and efficiency.

As mentioned earlier, flow is also in a chemically different state, although the particular neurochemical soup has yet to be identified. There needs to be a balance of dopamine and noradrenaline, particularly as they are modulated in a brain region known as the striatum, the locus of the attentional switch, serotonin, for freedom to access stream-of-consciousness associations, and adrenaline, to stay focused and energized. GABA neurons that normally function to inhibit actions and help us exercise self-control need to reduce their activity so that we are not overly critical of ourselves, and so that we can be less inhibited in the generation of ideas.

Flow is not always good. If it becomes an addiction, it can be disruptive. And it can be socially disruptive if flow-ers withdraw from others.

Levitin goes on to describe how creative individuals and groups structure their environments and lives to enhance flow.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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.

The Amygdala and the Problem of Reverse Inference

January 18, 2014

This blog post is based on the book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lillenfeld. Please bear with me as this is just the third post that I’ve written based on a source viewed on my Kindle.

The amygdala is a small region on each side of the brain. So we all should have two amygdalae. They are located in the temporal lobes, one in each hemisphere. In popular reports the amygdala has become almost synonymous with the emotional state of fearfulness. This is true. When you experience fear, the amygdala lights up. I have personal experience with research on the amygdala that I conducted when I was a graduate student. This was back in the days before brain imaging. I surgically implanted electrodes in rats placed under anesthesia so that they would electrically stimulate only their amygdalae. They were deprived of water and when placed in the operant chamber, they immediately started drinking. They received a shock after drinking. When they were placed back into the operant chamber they would not drink even if they were thirsty. However, if an electric current had been sent to the amygdalae when they were shocked the memory of the shock would never have been formed, so they would drink without fear when placed back in the operant chamber.

Although the amygdala is involved in fearfulness, it also responds to things that are unexpected, novel, unfamiliar or exciting. “This probably explains its increased activation when men look at pictures of a Ferrari 360 Modena. The amygdala reacts to photos of faces with menacing expressions, but also to photos of friendly, unfamiliar faces. If fearful faces are expected and happy faces unexpected, the amygdala will respond more strongly to the happy faces. The amygdala also helps register the personal relevance of a stimulus at a given moment. For example, one study revealed that hungry subjects manifested more robust amygdala responses to pictures of food than did their nonhungry counterparts.1

This amygdala example illustrates the problem of reverse inference, which is a problem that plagues the popular media. Reverse inference is the common practice of reasoning backward from the neural activation viewed in an image to subjective experience. The problem is that brain structures rarely perform single tasks, so one-to-one mapping between a given region and a particular mental states is highly prone to error. So “When Jeffrey Goldberg views a picture of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ventral striatum lights up like a menorah, some investigators might think, ‘Well we know that the mental striatum is involved with processing reward, so this subject, with his activated mental striatum is experiencing positive feelings for the dictator’”2 This would be true only if the ventral striatum exclusively processed the experience of pleasure. But novelty can also stimulate the ventral striatum.

1ibid

2ibid

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

Resilience

April 15, 2012

Resilience is one of the dimensions of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style.1 It refers to how quickly you bounce back from adversity. Do you bounce back quickly or do you let something bad keep you down for a prolonged length of time? Resilience is another “Goldilocks” variable in that you can have either too much or too little of it. Moreover, what is “just right” regarding resilience depends on the situation. If you just failed an examination, it might be worthwhile ruminating about it for a reasonable amount of time, not too excessive, trying to understand why you failed and how you might avoid similar failures in the future. However, you often see athletes compound an initial error by stewing over it, rather than quickly getting over it and attending to the immediate needs of the game or performance.

Davidson and his colleagues have performed some interesting research regarding the brain structures underlying resilience2. They did a study in which EEGs were recorded from the research participants scalps. Recordings of brain activity were done while 51 pictures were presented on a video monitor. However, before the pictures were presented the baseline level of brain activity was assessed for eight minutes. One-third of the pictures depicted upsetting images, another third pleasant images, and the other third neutral images. Sometime during or after a picture a short burst of white noise sounding like a click was presented. This was a startle probe that tends to make people blink involuntarily. Sensors were placed under one eye to determine when the eye blinked. When people are in a negative emotional state these startle-induced blinks are stronger than in a neutral state. When in a positive emotional state these startle-induced blinks become weaker still. This allowed the researchers to gauge how quickly a research participant recovered from a negative emotional state.

People who had greater activation in the left side of the prefrontal cortex recovered more quickly than the others. The amygdala is a subcortical structure (you have one in each hemisphere of your brain) that responds to negative or unpleasant stimuli. There is communication between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex shortens the period of amygdala activation allowing the brain to bounce back from an upsetting situation.

MRI brain imaging research has shown that the more white matter (axons that connect one neuron to another) lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the more resilient you are. The less white matter lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the less resilient you are.

Do not conclude from this that you are stuck with a fixed level of reslience due to the amoung of white matter you have between your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala. Research has indicated that this can be changed. In a later post, I will present techniques offered by Dr. Davidson as to how to change your level of resilience.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Ibid.