Posts Tagged ‘Fear’

Short Attention Span

May 21, 2020

The title of this post is the identical to the title of a chapter in a timely book by Daniel W. Dreszner, The Toddler in Chief. It begins with this excerpt from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Caring for You Baby and Young Child: Around ages two and three, children naturally are very active and impulsive and have a short attention span. All children occasionally seem overactive or easily distractible—for example, when they’re tired, excited about a shiny something ‘special,’ or anxious about being in a strange place or among strangers.”

The following is from an article by Susan Glasser in Politico, May 19, 2017: When European diplomats meet these days, they often swap stories about Trump—and how to manage their volatile new ally. “The president of the United States has a 12-second attention span,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a former senior official in April after meeting Trump in the Oval Office. Not only that, this person told me, the president seemed unprepared and ill-informed, running the conversation to North Korea and apparently unaware that NATO was not a part of the ongoing North saga.

The following is from an article by Greg Jaffe and Philip Rucker in the August 4 issue of the Washington Post: Trump had little time for in-depth briefings on Afghanistan’s history, its complicated political or its seemingly endless civil war. Even a single page of bullet points on the country seemed to tax the president’s attention on the subject, said senior White House officials. “I call the president the two-minute man,” said one Trump confident. “The president has patience for a half-page.”

The following is from Bob Woodward’s recounting in his book Fear of Gary Cohn complaining to White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter: Things are just crazy here. They’re so chaotic. He’s never going to change. It’s pointless to prepare a meaningful, substantive briefing for the president that’s organized, where you have a bunch of slides. Because you know he’s never going to listen. We’re never going to get through it. He’s going to get through the first 10 minutes and then he’s going to want to start talking about some other topic. And so we’re going to be there for an hour, but we’re never going to get through this briefing.

The following is from an article by Oliva Nuzzi in New York, March 28, 2018: How do you devise messaging for Trump, who will blow up the strategy without warning with a single early-morning tweet?” One hour you’ll be talking about immigration reform. The next you’ll be talking about the NFL. The next you’ll be talking about gun policy. The next you’ll be talking about tax cuts. And then, you know, circle back around to who lied on Morning Joe that day,” a second former White House official told New York, comparing the experience in the press shop to being, “on speed.”

The following is from an article by Philip Rucker in the Washington Post, January 21, 2019: At times Trump evinced less rage than a lack of interest. Sims recounts one time when Ryan was in the Oval Office explaining the ins and outs of the Republican health-care bill to the president. As Ryan droned on for 15 minutes, Trump sipped on a glass of Diet Coke, peered out at the Rose Garden, stared aimlessly at the walls and finally, walked out.
Ryan kept talking as the president wandered down the hall to his private dining room, where he flicked on his giant flat-screen TV. Apparently, he had had enough of Ryan’s talk. It fell to Vice President Pence to retrieve Trump and convince him to return to the Oval Office so they could continue their strategy session.”

The following is from Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube, NBC News, March 28, 2019: In his new role, Coats was responsible for walking a president he hardly knew through his daily intelligence briefing. He quickly found his boss had a short attention span for the information he was providing, current and former administration officials said. Coats struggled with how to respond when Trump veered off on unrelated tangents or bluntly disagree with the intelligence he was presented—as he often did, the current and former senior administrations officials said.
Coats found it particularly hard to hide his exasperation with Trumps insistence in the weeks after taking office that Obama had wiretapped him during the 2016 campaign, according to the officials. Over and over again Trump raised the issue and over and over Coats told him he wasn’t wiretapped, officials said, but the president didn’t want to hear it.
“It was a recurring thing and began early on,” a senior administration official who observed the exchanges said. “You could tell that Coats thought the president was crazy.”

Your Brain is Leading You Astray

August 8, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Professor Abigail Marsh in the 7 August 2019 issue of the Washington Post. She is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Georgetown University.

In reality, most people die of diseases of old age, such as heart disease and cancer. However, more than half of news coverage is devoted to homicides and terrorism, which account for less than 1% of actual deaths. People disproportionately buy, click on and share scary stories about people killing other people. Professor Marsh says we can blame this fact on our brain. She writes, “Your brain’s most important job is to take information about the messy, confusing world we inhabit, find patterns embedded in the noise and use them to make predictions about the future. Brains particularly like actionable intelligence—and the most useful information pertains to threats that can be avoided, thus increasing your odds of survival.”

She continues, “Heart disease and strokes don’t provide much fodder for this prediction machine. We know why they happen: because we get old. Talk about unactionable intelligence. The best you can do is to stave them off for a while by doing things we already know are healthy: Eat well, exercise, and don’t smoke. You can almost hear your brain yawning.”

She proceeds, “Now consider a gunman mowing down a crowd of innocents. Acts like this are rare, vivid and unexpected. The combination sets your brain whirring, whirring, generating a red-alert signal called a ‘prediction error,‘ a surge of activity deep in the brain’s emotional core. A prediction error signal screams: ‘Look for a cause! Prevent this next time!’ This leaves you craving even more information about such attacks, in the vain hope you can predict the next one.”

The article notes that we are not good at intuiting the minds of others, even those we know well. There is no way of intuiting the mind of a mass murderer. Most people would never commit an act like this. Prof. Marsh has spent more than a decade conducting research on rare populations such as altruistic kidney donors and psychopathic teenagers. She has come away convinced of two things. First, we are all not the same. and some people have much more (or less) capacity for compassion than average. And second: The average person is really pretty nice. Study after study bears her out. Most people return lost wallets, share resources, donate to charity and help strangers as a default response. She writes if people weren’t, on average, pretty compassionate, we wouldn’t need a label like “psychopath” for the small group of people who aren’t. She concludes,”Thus, the average person is totally unable to understand or predict why anyone would want to kill innocent people. And so the brain’s prediction machine draws the worse possible conclusion: If we can’t predict who among us is capable of heinous violence, it’s best to assume anyone could be. From there, it’s just one step further to conclude: Everyone could be. Translation: Trust no one.

She writes that up to 1 in 5 of us is genuinely paranoid. HM would consider the percentage of people who are Trump supporters. Trump’s entire campaign is based on fear. He claimed that there are many thousands of immigrants trying to enter the United States to sell drugs and commit crimes. Although one cannot argue that there are a few immigrants that do this; they constitute a distinct minority. The majority of these immigrants are leaving homes they no longer regard as safe, to go to that former safe harbor for immigrants, the United States. Most of our forebears came by this same route. Moreover, Trump supporters raise no objections about separating children from their parents and of forcing people to live in inhumane conditions. All this is the result of unfounded fear.

Fortunately, Prof. Marsh does no imply that we are victims of our brains. We can think and correct what our brain initially tells us. She concludes, “People who are trusting have more money and more friends. They are also happier, perhaps because their social lives are more rewarding. Trust also makes the world a better place—it’s the basis of all cooperations and social capital.”

In the lingo of the healthy memory blog, we must use our System 2 processes to override unwarranted fears from our System 1 processes.

Passing 73

May 6, 2019

Meaning that today HM is entering his 74th year. He engages in ikigai, the Japanese term referring to living a life with purpose, a meaningful life. His purpose, in addition to living a fulfilling life with his wife, is to learn and share his thoughts and knowledge with others. HM does this primarily through his blog healthymemory, which focuses on memory health and technology.

HM’s Ph.D is in cognitive psychology. That field has transitioned to cognitive neuroscience, a field of research and a term that did not exist when HM was awarded his Ph.D. HM is envious of today’s students. However, he is still fortunate enough to be able to keep abreast of current research and to relay relevant and meaningful research from this field to his readers.

What is most disturbing is the atmosphere of fear and hate that prevails today. It is ironic that technology, which had, and still has, a tremendous potential for spreading knowledge, now largely spreads disinformation, hatred, and fear.

HM understands why this is the case, but, unfortunately, he does not know how to counter it.

The problem can best be understood in terms of Kahneman’s Two Process Theory of cognition. In Nobel Lauerate Daniel Kahneman’s Two System View of Cognition. System 1, intuition, is our normal mode of processing and requires little or no attention. Unfortunately System 1 is largely governed by emotions. Fear and hate are System 1 processes. System 2, commonly referred to as thinking, requires our attention. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1. When we encounter something contradictory to what we believe, the brain sets off a distinct signal. It is easier to ignore this signal and to continue System 1 processing. To engage System 2 requires attentional resources to attempt to resolve the discrepancy and to seek further understanding. To put Kahneman’s ideas into the vernacular, System 2 involves thinking. System 1 is automatic and requires virtually no cognitive effort. Emotions are a System 1 process, as are identity based politics. Politics based on going with people who look like you requires no thinking yet provides social support.

Trump’s lying is ubiquitous. Odds are that anything he says is a lie. His entire candidacy was based on lies. So why is he popular? Identifying lies and correcting misinformation requires mental effort, System 2 processing. It is easier to be guided by emotions than to expend mental effort. The product of this cognitive miserliness is a stupidity pandemic.

Previous healthy memory posts have emphasized the enormous potential of technology. Today people, especially young people, are plugged in to their iPhones. Unfortunately, the end result is superficial processing. They get information expeditiously, but they are so consumed with staying in touch with updated information, that they have neither time nor attention left for meaningful System 2 processing. Unfortunately, technology, specifically social media, amplifies these bad effects, thus increasing misinformation, hatred and fear. Countering these bad effects requires implementing System 2 processes, that is thinking. A massive failure to do this enables Trump to build his politics on lies spreading hatred and fear.

As has been written in many previous healthy memory posts, System 2 processing will not only benefit politics, but will also decrease the probability of suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Personally, all this is upsetting. But HM believes it is essential to love one’s fellow humans. He tries to deal with this via meditation. Progress is both difficult and slow but it needs to be done. Hatred destroys the one who hates. So HM continues a daily struggle to be a better human being.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2019. 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.

If Emotion is so Central to Human Nature, Why Can it Be Harmful?

March 7, 2018

The answer is the same as why some of us tend to be overweight. In earlier stages of human development when starvation was commonplace, it was advantageous to eat foods that would load the body with fat. That time has passed and there is no longer a need to load the body with fat.

So in spite of social constraints, passions overwhelm time and time again. This is due to the basic architecture of mental life. The basic neural circuitry of emotion that we are born with is what worked best for the last 50,000 human generations not the last 500 generations. Goleman writes in his book “Emotional Intelligence,” “The slow deliberate forces of evolution that have shaped our emotions have done their work over the course of a million years; the last 10,000 years—despite having witnessed the rapid rise of human civilization and the explosion of the human population from five million to five billion—have left little imprint on our biological template for emotional life.” Given this explosive increase in population, the need for emotional intelligence has greatly increased. Unfortunately, our appraisal of every personal encounter and our responses to it are shaped not just by our rational judgments or our personal history, but also by our distant ancestral past. “In short, we too often confront postmodern dilemmas with an emotional repertoire tailored to the urgencies of the Pleistocene.”

Goleman continues, “All emotions are, in essence, impulses to act, the instant plans for handling life that evolution has instilled in us. The very root of the word emotion is “motere”, the Latin verb “to move,” plus the prefix “e-“ to connote “move away,” suggesting that a tendency to act is implicit in every emotion. That emotions lead to actions is most obvious in watching animals or children; it is only in “civilized” adults that we often find the great anomaly in the animal kingdom, emotions—root impulses to act—divorced from obvious action.”

Emotions have distinctive biological signatures:

*Anger— blood flows to the hands. This makes it easier to grasp a weapon or strike at a foe. Heart rate increases and crush of hormones such as adrenaline generates a pulse of energy strong enough for vigorous action.

*Fear—Blood goes to the large skeletal muscles, like the legs, making it easier to flee. This makes the face blanch as blood is shunted away from it (creating the feeling that blood “runs cold”). Simultaneously, the body freezes, if only for a moment, perhaps allowing time to gauge whether hiding might be a better reaction. Circuits in the brain’s emotional center trigger a flood of hormones that put the body on general alert. This makes it edgy and ready for action. Attention fixates on the threat at hand to better evaluate what response to make.

*Happiness—Here the main biological change is an increased activity in a brain center that inhibits negative feelings and fosters an increase in available energy, and a quieting of those that generate worrisome thoughts. There is no particular shift in physiology but a quiescence, which makes the body recover more quickly from the biological arousal of upsetting emotions. This configuration offers the body a general rest, as well as readiness and enthusiasm for whatever task is at hand and for striving toward a great variety of goals.

*Love—Tender feelings and sexual satisfaction entail parasympathetic arousal, which is the physiological opposite of the “fight or flight” mobilization shared by fear and anger. The parasympathetic pattern dubbed the “relaxation response,” is a bodywide set of reactions that generates a general state of calm and contentment, facilitating cooperation. [Entering “relaxation response” into the search block for the healthy memory blog will produce many posts on the relaxation response, to include how to induce the relaxation response, and the many benefits of the relaxation response]

*Surprise—The lifting of eyebrows in surprise allows the taking in of a larger visual sweep and also permits more light to strike the retina, allowing more information about the unexpected event, making it easier to figure out what is going on and concoct the best plan for action.

*Disgust—An expression of disgust looks the same around the world and sends the identical message: something is offensive in taste or smell, or metaphorically so. The facial expression of disgust—the upper lip curled to the side as the nose wrinkles slightly—suggests a primordial attempt, as Darwin observed, to close the nostril against a noxious odor to to spit out a poisonous food.

*Sadness—A main function of sadness is to help adjust to a significant loss, such as the death of someone close or a major disappointment . It brings a drop in energy and enthusiasm for life’s activities, particularly diversions and pleasures, and, as it portends an approaching depression, slows the body’s metabolism. This withdrawal creates the opportunity to mourn a loss or frustrated hope, grasp its consequences for one’s life, and, as energy returns, plan new beginnings. This loss of energy might have been kept saddened and vulnerable early humans close to home, where they were safer.

Suggestible You 6

March 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why When Matters are Objectively Good Do We Feel So Bad? Part One

August 19, 2016

By any objective standard, matters are quite good in the United States.  Just eight years ago, the world was on the verge of an economic collapse.  That collapse did not materialize,and today unemployment is low and the economy in the United States is among the best in the world.  So why are people saying that this country is on the wrong track?  Why are some people willing to vote for an emotionally unstable individual with none of the skills for the job for President of the United States?  There are a number of reasons for this, but this current post will focus on the following article in the Insight section of the 6 August 2016 issued of the New Scientist, titled “July was bad news but I’m fine—so why do I feel so terrible?”  The author notes that July brought an unusual dump of bad headlines including the televised deaths of Philander Castile and Alton Sterling, police being killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge, terror attacks in Istanbul, Baghad, Nice and Saint-Etieene-du-Rouvray, plus other acts of violence in Germany and Japan.

Peter Ayton who studies decision-making at City University in London says that we should be wary of the idea that there’s something in the water.  “This is an attempt at induction: grouping events on the idea of some force or influence may be engineering the shape of the days.”  Even if news stories are random, statistically we should still expect to see runs of more upsetting headlines.

Elaine Fox of the University of Oxford notes that we are predisposed to focus on bad stuff.  “Threat information activates the fear system, while positive news activates the reward system.  The fear system is stronger, and works to shut down the rational part of our brain.  Once we are in a fearful state, we’re conditioned to see out more bad news.

Fox continues, “The sense of immediacy provided by 24-hour rolling news means the brain is saying, “this is a real threat to me.”  This explains why we feel so personally affected even though chances of being caught up in a shooting or terrorist attack are vanishingly small.  The vividness of images may also skew our sense of risk.  In October 2014 after several months of disturbing TV reports from West Africa, a Gallup Poll found that 22 % of people in the US were worried about contracting Ebola, despite only six people in the country being infected and none picking it up on home soil.

Ayton notes that we underestimate our ability to adapt to huge changes.  A 1978 study showed that after two years, people paralyzed in accidents and lottery winners showed little change in overall happiness, instead habituating to their new state.  This finding has been replicated many times.

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.

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© 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.